Yorktown has a lot of trees. We’re lucky that way, because trees perform many important functions that provide us, as a community and as individual homeowners, with a rich array of aesthetic, environmental and financial benefits—for free.
In recognition of those functions and benefits, in 2010 the Town Board enacted an environmentally-grounded, progressive Tree Law. The law’s overriding goal is to preserve Yorktown’s woodlands, as well as protect individual trees, while at the same time recognizing the inherent rights of homeowners to manage their own property and also to accommodate reasonable development.
Now Yorktown’s woods and trees are in danger, because the Town Board is considering repealing the 2010 law and replacing it with a new law; a law that is significantly weaker. And for no apparent reason as no data or analysis has been provided pointing out problems with the current law.
In numerous ways, the current law achieves a well thought-out balance of protecting individual property rights while preserving the town’s woodlands and trees.
Instead of being a copy, cut and paste of other municipal tree laws that typically protect individual trees, the innovative 2010 law is geared toward protecting the critical functions of woodland communities, as well as individual trees. For example, trees functioning as a buffer between residential properties are regulated differently from trees holding soil in place on a slope. Trees in a woodland are regulated differently from the stately historical trees in front of the John C. Hart Library. In other words, the 2010 law recognizes that the regulation should be tailored to the function of the tree or woodland and that one regulation doesn’t fit all situations.
While some property owners and elected officials have criticized the 2010 law as overly complicated, these critics fail to realize that it’s the law’s careful attention to detail that actually protects the rights of property owners.
A draft of the new Tree Law is currently being circulated to advisory boards for feedback. Because the draft includes many internal contradictions, inconsistencies, undefined terms and omissions, one assumes (and hopes) that the draft will undergo major revisions before a version is advertised for a public hearing. One wonders, however, why the Town Board didn’t take the time to identify problems with the current law, real as well as perceived, and then suggest changes. Why throw the baby out with the bath water?
Here are just a few of the provisions and omissions in the proposed Tree Law revision, which actually make the new law less protective and more difficult for the individual homeowner, while, at the same time, doing nothing towards the overall goal of preserving Yorktown’s woodlands and important individual trees.
• There is no overriding goal to preserve Yorktown’s critically important wooded areas. Indeed, the proposed law has no stated goal at all. This is a shortsighted approach to protecting a natural resource that can take decades to replenish itself.
• The draft law treats all property owners the same, regardless of lot size. The regulated buffer zone in which a tree cutting permit is required is the same for quarter-acre lot as for a 4-acre lot, which means on small lots potentially almost the entire property is a regulated zone. An example where one regulation definitely does not fit all.
• The draft law does not differentiate between permits a homeowner might need for limited tree removal and a permit required by a developer who will likely clear cut a large area of trees.
• The draft law eliminates the special protections for large property owners who already have professionally written plans for the sustainable management of their trees and wooded areas.
• The draft law regulates trees only on private property and completely leaves out woodlands that are the home of thousands of trees in town-owned open space and parks as well as individual trees along our streets and roads. Should the town be allowed to exempt itself from regulations that all other property owners must abide by?
When I taught college-level environmental science courses, on the first day of class I asked incoming students if they cared about the environment and to name something they did which signified this care. Often students cited not littering as a testament to their environmental stewardship. This is a perfectly acceptable answer. However, it focuses on how things look and reveals a lack of understanding about how the environment works.
Similarly the new draft Tree Law focuses on individual trees with little understanding of how large wooded areas function and why, as a community, we need to balance preservation with human activities. Will the Town Board move beyond the first day of class?
Linda Miller is a former environmental consultant to municipalities and helped write the 2010 Tree Law.