Doesn’t Yorktown already have a tree law? Why do we need another one?

Yes, Yorktown does have a tree law, enacted in 2016, but it’s weak and ineffective.

It can’t do what it was supposed to do: achieve a fair and workable balance between the rights of property owners to use and develop their property with the need to protect the critical environmental functions of trees and woodlands. It should be repealed and replaced with a law with clearly stated goals and the teeth to enforce those goals.

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Advocates for a Better Yorktown (ABY), a grassroots advocacy committee, offered an initial draft of a new, stronger tree and woodland protection law for the Town Board’s consideration.

In the course of reviewing this draft, it became apparent that there were major differences of opinion between and within the town’s advisory boards on what the tree law should regulate or if such a law was even necessary.

In order to move forward toward a better tree law, the Town Board set up an ad hoc tree law committee tasked with hammering out a compromise between these divergent viewpoints. The committee consisted of representatives of the Planning Department, Engineering Department, Planning Board, Conservation Board, Tree Conservation Advisory Committee and ABY.

The resulting work product (§270 PRESERVATION OF YORKTOWN’S TREES AND WOODLANDS) is a compromise incorporating the committee’s diverse expertise, viewpoints and experience.  The law has been simplified, while still remaining true to its stated intent of balancing tree and woodland protection with the property rights of owners.

Now the residents of Yorktown get a chance to weigh in at a public hearing on Tuesday, July 2.

So how does the proposed 2019 revised law improve on the current 2016 tree law?

• The current law mentions the word “woodlands” only once and after that makes no attempt to regulate or protect them. In contrast, the 2019 revision lives up to its name and intent by protecting woodland ecosystems as well as individual trees. The new law defines a protected woodland in terms of size, but also its vegetation layers, i.e. groundcover, shrub understory and canopy trees.

Research shows that the diversity of vegetation in woodlands, organized into these layers, is crucial to the myriad environmentally and economically valuable functions woodlands provide. For example, woodlands help moderate flooding, droughts and downstream water pollution by reducing water runoff and soil erosion; promote water infiltration and ground water recharge; trap a significant share of carbon dioxide to help counter climate change; provide habitat for a wide range of wildlife.

• The 2019 revision applies to all trees and woodlands in Yorktown, even those on town-owned land. The current law exempts the town from adhering to its own law, leaving trees and woodlands on approximately 4,000 acres of town-owned land unprotected.

• Certain permits and mitigation plans must now be referred to the Conservation Board and Tree Conservation Advisory Committee for their expert input. Why not take advantage of these resources?

• Mitigation requirements have been strengthened for larger, higher impact projects, especially in woodlands. The law in no way prevents lawful development but ensures that the impact of unavoidable tree and woodland loss is reduced.

• The permit application process has been streamlined. The administrative permit route has been reinstated especially benefiting homeowners. In some cases, the new regulations eliminate the need for multiple town permits for the same work.

• Protection is provided for trees on steep slopes to help prevent water runoff and soil erosion. Also, there is a minimal regulation of tree removal in a 5-foot buffer zone on the perimeter of residential lots 1 acre or less.  This protects the function of trees as visual and sound buffers and their importance in determining the character of our neighborhoods.

What hasn’t changed?

• Permits are still not required to remove dead, diseased or dangerous trees, invasive species or in emergency situations.

• The number and size of individual trees (less than 10) that can be removed without a permit is the same as in the current law.

• Large, old specimen trees are still protected.

What’s your vision for Yorktown? Do you see our town as a community that values trees and woodlands for what they add to our quality of life and for the important ecological and economic services they provide? If you answer “yes,” then it’s important that you come to the public hearing on July 9 to support the new, stronger law. Tell the Town Board what you want for Yorktown’s future.

Linda Miller, Ph.D, is a former environmental consultant, professor of environmental science and Yorktown Conservation Board member.