By Robin Jovanovich
We may be a deeply divided people, but are we not also a people who come together when preservation and progress are at stake?
It’s evident that more and more Rye residents are concerned about the accelerated pace at which mature trees are routinely being taken down — 12 on a side yard, 40 in a backyard, another 100 on a slightly larger property. And for what? So that homeowners can have manses that dwarf their neighbors and remove every foot of privacy and beauty?
The need to enact new tree removal regulations has been on the critical list for decades. If a property owner doesn’t require Planning Commission approval to get a building permit, he or she typically removes as many trees as desired without penalty, before even submitting an application to the Building Department.
We all have a tipping point. One day I was out for a walk and found my neighbor sobbing in her driveway. She said she was okay, just overwrought that her neighbor was removing every tree along their shared property line and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.
In the first week of February, Mayor Cohn watched as 40 trees were removed from the lot next to his. He called a special meeting of the City Council for February 6 at which an emergency three-month moratorium on clear-cutting was to be proposed. Three Councilmembers didn’t attend the meeting on the grounds of the appearance of impropriety on the part of the mayor and their belief that a rushed meeting without input from the community and the advice of certified arborists and the Conservation Commission was not the way to address a longstanding problem.
The Board of Ethics weighed in on the matter in an opinion made public February 14, the day before the next regular Council meeting. “We find that the extraordinary rush to call the meeting gives a reasonable basis for the impression that the Councilmembers who attended and voted at the February 6 meeting were influenced to take such action because of the proximity to the mayor’s property and to protect the mayor’s property and therefore to provide an elected official with a personal benefit.” The Board cautioned the Council against voting for a moratorium at the February 15 meeting.
Oddly, the Councilmembers who attended the special meeting not only made no mention of the Board of Ethics’ findings at the February 15 meeting but went ahead and made a motion to pass the moratorium, which failed.
What residents who were in the audience or tuned in from home on February 15 heard was bullying and grandstanding from Councilmembers who are close to the mayor. Councilmember Julie Souza turned to the three “No” voters, Josh Nathan, Lori Fontanes, Bill Henderson, and exclaimed: “Any tree that comes down is on you!”
Meg Cameron stated that those three dissenting Councilmembers had “derailed this important work. Those three should have shown up.”
Resident Suki van Dijk, who is very much in favor of the passage of stricter tree removal regulations, questioned just how much work had been done by the tree subcommittee, which is comprised of Councilmembers Souza, Ben Stacks and Carolina Johnson. “Which experts did they consult?” She described some of “the drama” at the Council meeting as embarrassing.
Longtime resident Judy Studebaker restored dignity and purpose to the meeting. “We need to remind residents of why trees are so important. People have lost sight of the benefit. They absorb greenhouse gasses, fight climate change. Their canopies help conserve energy.” She added, “I encourage the Council to keep trees of all sizes and make sure new houses are designed around existing trees.”
The Council agreed to set a public hearing March 15 to hear amendments to the tree laws (Chapter 187 of the City Code) and hopes to have a draft law ready by then.
In the end, the community needs to be part of the conversation on whether we are going to be a Tree City or a Treeless Teardown Community. All politics isn’t meaningful the February 6 Special Council Meeting