Yorktown’s 2016 tree law needs to be replaced. Some members of the Town Board agree. The law is weak. It’s 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.
How does the town go about fixing an existing law?
In February 2018, representatives of Advocates for a Better Yorktown (ABY) presented the Town Board with an initial draft of a new, stronger tree law. The draft started with the 2016 law and added several new provisions, including:
• extending the protection of the law to trees on Town-owned land;
• adding protection for the functions of woodlands, a valuable natural resource which was totally ignored in the 2016 law; and
• requiring stronger mitigation measures when trees had to be cut down to make way for new development.
After discussions with the Town Board, the initial draft was edited to reflect input from the board and also to clarify certain issues. A revised draft was subsequently referred out to the town’s advisory boards for review and comment.
Typically, the next step would have been for the board to review those written comments along with a third ABY draft that addressed many of those comments and, after synthesizing all the comments into a Town Board draft, schedule a public hearing so Yorktown residents could weigh in how the town’s trees and woodlands should be protected.
Instead, the Town Board chose to air the advisory boards’ comments at a joint work session. At the joint meeting, it quickly became apparent that there were major differences of opinion on how to proceed; while some of the comments called for fine-tuning some provisions of the ABY draft (the speakers had not been given a copy of the revised third draft), other comments were based on a misreading and/or intentional misrepresentation of the ABY draft, including the comments that the 2016 law—a law the Conservation Board strongly opposed prior to its adoption—was working just fine and that a new law was not needed.
Faced with conflicting interpretations of the same law, the Town Board decided to appoint a committee to sift through the contradictory comments and report back to the board. For example:
Is the law easy to interpret and understand?
Yes, it is. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the major criticisms of the ABY draft has been its length when the one of the reasons for that length has been the need for more definitions so that the meaning of the law is clear and easy for all to understand.
For example, the 2016 tree law exempts “agricultural activities” but doesn’t define the term. Without a definition, who determines if a backyard vegetable garden is an “agricultural activity” or not?
And, contrary to some uninformed comments, there’s no mystery to either defining or delineating a woodland; like a wetland, several professionally recognized methodologies are readily available.
Will a stronger law be burdensome on homeowners?
No, it won’t. Most of the provisions in the ABY draft regarding homeowners are the very same provisions found in the 2016 law. Some proposed provisions are even less restrictive.
• Permits are not needed to remove dead, dying or diseased trees. The ABY draft actually eliminates the 2016 regulation requiring the homeowner to hire an arborist before these trees can be cut down.
• The ABY draft allows homeowners to remove trees without a permit in the event of emergency situations such as storm damage.
• The ABY draft contains the same threshold as the 2016 law for when a tree permit is needed: removing more than 10 trees over 18 consecutive months. No one has criticized this threshold, now or in 2016.
• The ABY draft reinstates a simpler permit process for homeowners.
In no way will the law prevent a homeowner from putting up a swing set or putting in a pool. To even suggest that is a gross misreading of the law.
Can a stronger tree law incorporate the town’s motto: Progress with Preservation?
Yes, it can. Contrary to several comments at the October meeting, the ABY draft will not impede or prevent new residential or commercial development. Even the most ardent environmentalists accept the fact that trees have to be cut down and woodlands lost in order to make way for new development. And, like the wetlands law that has been on the town’s books for over 40 years, a tree law does not prevent a property owner from the reasonable use and enjoyment of his or her property; it simply regulates that use to insure the health, safety and wellbeing of the town and its residents.
Is replanting trees the only way to mitigate for cutting trees?
No, there are other options. A major feature of the ABY draft is the flexibility built into the mitigation provisions. Several comments at the October meeting ignored the clear language in the ABY draft that a mitigation plan should be custom tailored to each site and not limited to tree replanting. For example, if most of the trees on a site have to be cut down to make way for a development and replanting new trees doesn’t make sense, the mitigation measures can be undertaken off site, or the developer can make a monetary contribution into a Tree Bank Fund.
Once the ad hoc committee reports back to the Town Board on what it thinks a new tree law should contain, it will be up to the Town Board to accept or modify the committee’s recommendations and prepare a draft law that will be the subject of a public hearing.
After more than nine months of meetings and memos, it’s time for the Town Board to make decisions.
Linda Miller, PhD, is a former environmental consultant, professor of environmental science and Yorktown Conservation Board member.