YORKTOWN, N.Y. For more than two hours, speakers at last Tuesday’s Town Board meeting weighed in on the proposed tree ordinance, with the night’s last speaker urging council members to consider the comments and revise the law accordingly. With a few exceptions, they didn’t, approving the law only minutes later by a 4-1 vote.
After the meeting, Tree Conservation Advisory Commission member Dale Saltzman characterized the board’s actions as “pitiful.”
Supervisor Michael Grace, however, said the Town Board called for the public hearing only after fine-tuning the law at several lengthy work sessions. Present at the sessions was a drafter of the original 2010 law, which the board repealed, and the chair of the tree commission.
“We had a number of work sessions on this ironing out all the issues,” Grace said.
The town’s tree law, first approved in 2010, was criticized by the present Town Board as convoluted and ineffectual. Grace, for his part, labeled it as “ribbon cutting” legislation that didn’t do what it set out to do—protect trees. All it did, Grace said, was lead to many neighbor disputes being settled in Town Hall. For that reason, the new law exempts “border trees”—trees that border two properties. Previously, property owners needed permits to remove trees in buffer zones.
“Border trees are where all the problems arise,” Grace said. “If a neighbor objects to another neighbor taking down a tree that provides buffer, who wins that argument?”
Grace said these disputes “belittle the purpose and intent of the tree ordinance because that’s all it denigrates to.”
Looking to “streamline” the permitting process, the Town Board proposed to repeal the existing 2010 law and replace it with a new version, one that critics say is too soft.
“I really find certain reservations, very serious reservations, as to the way it’s written,” said Carl Hoegler, a 30-year resident. Too often in the law, Hoegler said, property owners “may” have to apply for a permit, instead of stronger words like “should” or “shall.”
Hoegler also said “skipping steps” is not the same thing as “streamlining.” Grace, however, said the previous law, while it required permits more frequently, did not “provide any grounds to reject a permit.” Additionally, Grace said, there will always be “bad actors” who circumvent the permit process entirely and cut trees without permission.
In that case, resident Paul Coteus said, the town could and should heavily penalize property owners who break the law. Coteus added that the new law fails to mention global warming. Man-made or not, he said, “There is no denying there is more carbon in the atmosphere.” Removing carbon from the atmosphere is something trees do very effectively, Coteus said, and cutting them down only releases more carbon.
“I’m for the law that makes it harder to remove trees,” Coteus said, “because it’s that important.”
Linda Miller, who co-authored the original tree law that the Town Board repealed, said the new law was “poorly worded and needs some editing.” She said there are too many instances where things are open for interpretation. Miller said the 2010 law was the “most extensively reviewed law” on the books in Yorktown.
Ann Kutter, who co-authored the law with Miller, did not share the same feeling, saying certain provisions were accepted by the 2010 Town Board “virtually without discussion.” The original law “arbitrarily” proposed preserving 70 percent of the existing woodland in the town, despite having “no scientific basis for choosing 70 percent,” Kutter said. That 70 percent figure is not included in the new law.
Also under the new law, owners of properties that are 10,000 square-feet or more (quarter-acre) can remove up to 10 “protected trees” every 18 months without a permit. Protected trees are trees that are 8 inches or greater in diameter. The old law limited property owners of 5,000 square-feet or more (eighth of an acre) to removing 10 protected trees (6 inches or greater) every 12 months.
Planning Board member Jon Flynn also critiqued the new tree ordinance. While the Planning Board has the final say over enforcement of the law, it also allows for applicants to appeal any decision to the Town Board. Flynn said involving the Town Board gives off a “perception of corruption.”
Grace said the tree ordinance must contain an appeals process or else it wouldn’t be constitutional. In fact, he said, a similar appeals provision was in the 2010 tree law. Councilman Greg Bernard said the Town Board has no intentions “politicizing the planning process.”
Community members recommended several other changes to the new law: separate requirements for “border trees” between properties, requiring permits for any tree clearing on public property, and a clearly defined timeframe between permissible tree removals on the same property. The board only accepted the final suggestion, adding the 18-month timeframe.
At the request of Wilkens Farm, the board also added an exception for tree clearing for agricultural activity. Randy Pratt of the farm said agricultural work often requires him to take down 10-plus trees quite often.
“This law, as written, simplifies the old law,” Grace said. He added that anyone who thinks the law lacks transparency or takes power away from the Planning Board is “completely misreading” the law.
He said the law also aims to protect “street trees,” which are trees in the town’s right-of-way.
“Street trees are important because they have an aesthetic impact,” he said.
Councilman Vishnu Patel, the only person to vote against the law’s approval, said, “I think we are making the [tree] law weaker.”
The law can be read in its entirely on yorktownny.org.