Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the public hearing would take place Sept. 6. The date is actually Sept. 20.
YORKTOWN, N.Y. - The Yorktown Town Board is in the throes of rewriting the town’s tree ordinance, saying the current law is too convoluted and unenforceable, though the Tree Conservation Advisory Commission begs to differ.
Members of the Tree Conservation Advisory Commission said they worry that the revised code will not put enough emphasis on preservation, but Supervisor Michael Grace assured them that the commission would play a vital role in deciding how the town would manage its tree population.
“We’re going to empower the tree commission to do a lot more master planning for the local canopy and forest,” Grace said.
With the commission’s assistance, Grace said, he hopes to create an effective management plan for the town’s overall tree population, from street trees to forests.
However, Bill Kellner, chair of the Tree Conservation Advisory Commission, said that Yorktown’s tree law is unique in that it sets clear goals for woodland preservation and has tight restrictions on tree cutting. He worried that a revised version will not. He said that the current law acknowledges property restrictions “in a helpful way.”
“The proposed revisions, if enacted, will leave us with a law without these features,” Kellner said. “One key feature in the tree laws of Yorktown and its neighbors is tighter restrictions on tree cutting in the buffers that separate properties. The proposed revision would remove these protections and eliminate distinctions between property edges and interiors.”
The current law applies to the town’s municipally owned properties—about 3,500 acres, much of them wooded. Kellner said the revised code would eliminate that.
He noted that his commission and other volunteer advisory boards were given the opportunity to comment on the proposed revisions and that a number of tree conservation suggestions, including a provision to protect tree size, were incorporated into those revisions.
Linda Miller, a former independent environmental consultant who helped craft Yorktown’s current tree ordinance, said she understands how it may seem property owners’ rights are infringed upon but said the current process is actually fairer than the proposed one.
“There are many zoning regulations that limit how one can alter or use private property, in large part to protect neighbors’ use and enjoyment of their property,” she said. “In the case of zoning regulations, a property owner can seek a variance and his neighbors can express their views at a public hearing. Then, the ZBA decides how to reconcile the needs of the interested parties. This is very similar to the provisions of the existing tree ordinance.”
The existing provisions she refers to state that a permit is required to cut a certain number of tress within a buffer zone.
“It is a well-accepted principle of community living that there are limitations on the use of private property to maintain the health and character of the community,” she said. “The existing law recognizes that getting a permit might seem painful to individual home owners, so it makes provisions for a much less rigorous administrative permit process for these cases, as opposed to the requirements for large land developments.”
She said that permit requirements are not prohibitions; they just mean that an expert will take an objective look at the situation and sort out the fairest way to proceed.
Grace, however, argues that the residents who remove trees do so responsibly, so the town is wasting unnecessary resources on mitigation. He also added that it’s not up to the Town Board to second guess what someone wants to do with his property and “it’s almost impossible to deny these permits, so why are we doing them?”
“To legislate for a problem that doesn’t exist doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Very few people ever clear cut. Most people don’t take down the trees until there’s a threat to their home. Most people are very judicious as to how they prune their property.”
Miller countered, “The assertion that ‘the law isn’t working because no permits are ever denied’ indicates a misunderstanding of the whole point of the permit procedure. The point is to let things happen with guidelines, not prohibit them.”
Miller said she doesn’t feel this is a strong enough reason to overhaul the code.
“I totally agree that new laws need to be reassessed after a time in effect, but we’re looking at a wholesale change here, rather than fine-tuning of deficiencies,” she said.
Grace maintains the board’s decision to change the code in order to ease the mitigation process for developers, and said the changes will make the law more effective and true to its intention.
“[The current law] has not proved to be effective in terms of the intent, which is to have a healthy local forest,” he said. “You need to weed out invasive species.”
Currently, the town code requires that if 30 percent of a property’s trees are removed, they must be replaced according to the diameter of the tree at 4-and-a-half feet above the baseline of the tree. Grace said replacing trees might not be the best use of resources and may not be as effective as intended.
“You take down X number of inches of trees you have to replace it in kind; that doesn’t necessarily provide any benefit to anybody, besides being expensive,” Grace said. “It doesn’t really foster the intent because it is not just replacing trees that are taken down; it is taking care of a lot of open spaces that need a lot of help. Many of them are overtaken by invasive species and vines, which result in loss of the old hard woods. It’s like a garden; it’s not just planting, sometimes you have to weed it as well.”
A public hearing on the new tree ordinance will be held at the Sept. 20 meeting of the Town Board at Yorktown Town Hall. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m.