By Robin Jovanovich
The last time the City Council gave serious consideration to revising its tree laws was twenty years ago. Public hearings were held, but the measure failed because a handful of residents argued successfully that property rights trumped tree preservation. Meanwhile, wholesale clear-cutting of trees has occurred in every neighborhood as new and bigger homes have replaced more modest ones.
But there was a tipping point last weekend, as Forest/Fairway/Green/Valley View Avenue neighbors watched a tree company remove every single tree, as many as 40, on a lot on a paper street off Forest Avenue. Mayor Cohn, a longtime resident of that neighborhood, scheduled a special Council meeting for Monday, February 6.
Three City Council members, Lori Fontanes, Josh Nathan, and Bill Henderson did not attend the meeting. Fontanes told the paper: “As a believer in good governance, I simply could not support the hasty process surrounding this meeting. I feel that we will only achieve best outcomes through a transparent, robust dialogue with the public as well as with experts on our boards and commissions and City staff such as planning, building, and legal.
“I look forward to bringing my own extensive experience on environmental and conservation issues to this conversation. The trees and those of us who care about them have been waiting well over a decade for a better law. It’s worth doing it right, not getting it wrong through undue haste and murky reasoning.”
Councilman Nathan said, “I agree that we should be protecting trees and preserving the beauty of Rye City. Bill Henderson, Lori Fontanes, and I simply could not participate in the emergency special meeting because of its questionable genesis and ethical concerns. We share a bipartisan commitment to good governance and look forward to working on tree legislation in a proper manner as quickly and practicably as possible.”
Councilman Henderson preferred not to be quoted.
Meanwhile, the Council members at the meeting, especially Julie Souza, went through draft legislation that Corporation Counsel Kristin Wilson had provided in a matter of days. There was perhaps too much parsing of language by Councilmember Souza and the Mayor — replacing “clear-cutting with removal” — before the many residents in the audience who had signed up to speak were invited to come to the podium. But nearly all those residents thanked the Council for focusing attention on a long overdue review of tree removal policy and revision of Chapter 187 of the City Code.
Landscape designer Kate Briggs, who was the first to speak, proffered: “The City of Rye needs a program to replace trees.” She noted that many tree roots are damaged when large-scale construction occurs and suggested that applicants be asked to “adjust the architecture” to leave room for mature trees.
Lucy Berkoff, also a landscape designer, brought photos of a current project at 80 Forest Avenue, at which an “historic” beech among many other majestic trees had been unnecessarily removed, and invasive trees, which should have been removed, were not. She also provided photos of new construction projects on Hook Road, where there were opportunities to maintain some of the established landscape; rubble was left all over native tree roots at one. “Builders used to take more care preserving trees,” Berkoff remarked. “The City could make allowances for removal of invasive trees and state its preference for natives in a new law.”
Twenty-five-year resident Todd Smith, who “has sadly witnessed far too much clear-cutting”, said he is also concerned about the severe trimming of trees by developers which weakens them.
Milton Road resident Lisa Chen, who lives directly across from a subdivision under review, noted that six major trees will be removed under the plan. She, and other neighbors, have attended numerous Planning Commission meetings arguing against the project on the grounds that it will increase flooding and negatively impact the beauty and the character of the neighborhood.
Chen made a strong case that the City not permit the removal of any trees until a moratorium is in place. “In other towns, like Harrison and Scarsdale, there is a threshold.” She also emphasized the need for a certified City-appointed arborist, not a landscape designer hired by the applicant, to review projects which call for mature trees to be taken down.
Lifelong resident Dan Greto, owner of Central Tree Service in Rye, is a certified arborist and he said, “My business is to preserve trees.” He offered his help to the City.
Unfortunately, the names of many other residents who spoke were not clear because of sound gaps, but a couple who live on Fairway Avenue encouraged the Council to hold as many special meetings as they needed in order to get a new tree law in place. They advised the Council to look at the tree law in Brazil, which requires every individual who removes a tree to replace it with one of the same size.
A Valleyview Avenue resident said she was flabbergasted by the amount of clear-cutting that had occurred and the fact that no permit is required. She suggested that every building application be reviewed for its environmental impact.
Former Deputy Mayor Emily Hurd went to the podium accompanied by two of her three young sons. She stated that a revision of the tree law was long overdue and critical for the community. “While homeowners have rights, a homeowner doesn’t have the right to change a neighborhood. When she asked her sons, George and Charlie, to share some of the benefits of trees from their perspective, they replied spiritedly: “You can climb a tree, attach a swing to a tree, and in the fall, you can jump in piles of leaves.”
The Council set a public hearing on the proposed three-month moratorium for its February 15 meeting. In the revised draft, no trees over 20 inches in diameter and no more than two trees of greater than 8-inch caliper can be removed on any city property; diseased trees will be assessed by a certified arborist; and fines for violating the moratorium will range between $2,500 and $10,000.
Input from more residents is encouraged. In fact, it’s essential. The meeting starts at 6:30.
We spoke at length with Councilwoman Souza, who has served on the Tree subcommittee for several years with Councilmembers Carolina Johnson and Ben Stacks, and the late Richard Mecca before that. “We wanted to bring revisions to the tree law before the public much earlier, but we had to tackle flooding, new zooming laws regarding flag lots, and a six-month moratorium on blasting and rock chipping rules while we worked on a new law.”
She added, “There are far too many loopholes in Rye’s current tree law and while we have to honor property rights, we have to stop the removal madness.”
Cutting down more than two trees of more than 8-inch caliper.