When Trees Fall Next Door, Neighbors Make the Noise

By Corey Kilgannon
Yorktown Heights, NY (November 29, 2009)- Jennie Sunshine doesn’t need horror movies. She has witnessed numerous chain-saw massacres right on Ravencrest Road, her sleepy suburban block in this upper Westchester town. “It seems like every time someone moves onto the block, they begin cutting down trees,” said Ms. Sunshine, 38, a stay-at-home mother of a 2-year-old girl. Three neighbors have deforested parts of their yards in the past two years, she said.


“I’m not a nosy neighbor, but every time I hear the saws, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, there it is again,’ ” she said. “These trees were not sick or a safety hazard; these people just wanted to rearrange the landscape. I thought, ‘If this continues, what’s Yorktown going to look like in 30 years, the Lower East Side?'”
Ms. Sunshine never confronted her neighbors, but she joined a group of like-minded residents who are pushing for a town ordinance requiring property owners to get approval before removing certain trees on their property. Protecting trees on public land and parkland, and on property under development, is standard in municipalities in the New York area. But more local governments – Larchmont and Rye in Westchester County, and Chatham, Madison and Rutherford in New Jersey, to name a few – have considered or are debating more controversial restrictions on what homeowners can do with the trees on their own property.
Protecting the tree canopy and preventing soil erosion and flooding- as well as preserving a town’s character- are among the aims of the rules. In many places, these ordinances were a backlash to the building boom that preceded the recession, when developers were clear-cutting many lots for housing.
As a result of the new regulation of private trees, homeowners in many municipalities who assume they can chop impulsively and ask questions later may have to rethink their plans. Or they may have to at least familiarize themselves with the intricacies of their town codes to prove that a candidate for cutting is not a specimen that merits government protection. The criteria include the age and species of the tree, as well as arboreal intricacies like D.B.H. (diameter at breast height).
Fines and penalties for failing to obtain a tree removal permit can be stiff. In Yorktown Heights, for example, the proposed fines for violators are laid out in detail: up to $250 a tree, plus $25 for each inch of tree diameter up to 18 inches, measured at the stump. The fine rate would be increased for bigger trees, and multiple offenders could face a $1,500 civil penalty, doubled fines or, in some cases, jail.
Not surprisingly, the proposal has raised hackles. Opponents call the members of Ms. Sunshine’s group, the Yorktown Tree Conservation Advisory Commission, tree huggers and deride their mission as a threat to private property rights. A local weekly newspaper, North County News, recently called the proposal a “barking up the wrong tree ordinance,” one that messed with private property, “the heart and soul” of the American dream. “Prison time for people who cut down trees on their own property?” the paper asked. “We don’t think so.”
Nick DiTomaso, 79, a Yorktown resident, agrees with North County News. “If a person wants to own property, why shouldn’t he be able to do what he wants with his trees?” Mr. DiTomaso asked. “Before you know it, you have no rights.”
In Madison, N.J., Mr. DiTomaso’s point of view has prevailed. A tree preservation group’s proposal for regulating tree removal on private property, similar to an ordinance passed in 2004 in adjacent Chatham, was decisively rebuked.
“It really caused a revolution,” said Mary-Anna Holden, the mayor of Madison. “Each time it came up, it was resoundingly defeated. A lot of people basically said, ‘If you want to pay my taxes, then you can touch my trees,’ and quite frankly, I’m one of those people.”
“Just considering the issue caused us to lose more trees because of the hysteria,” Ms. Holden added. “People said, ‘I’m going to take these trees down now,’ because they feared having to pay fees or being denied permits if an ordinance was passed. You saw tree companies all over town.”
In other cases, town officials have faced court challenges. In May, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled against a builders’ association that sued to stop Jackson Township from passing an ordinance relating to trees on private land. The township passed the ordinance shortly thereafter.
In Rutherford, N.J., Steven Savitsky, a homeowner who notes that nearby towns like Paramus, Maywood, Cliffside Park and Fair Lawn have enacted tree-cutting ordinances, is seeking an ordinance that would, among other things, assign certain trees – like American elms and magnolias – landmark status on private land. The Rutherford proposal also outlines a “tree replacement formula,” which offers guidelines for replacing trees whenever they are removed. Violators of the proposed regulations could face $500 to $5,000 fines.
“A red flag goes up whenever you tell people they can’t do something on their own property,” Mr. Savitsky acknowledged. “But we just need to preserve trees here. The tree canopy is going down the tubes, and what you do on your private property affects the public.”
These tree ordinances are enacted at the town and village level, and the resulting large number and variety of rules can cause confusion. “You have more than 40 different towns in Westchester, and each one has a different tree ordinance,” said Kenneth G. Almstead, whose family owns Almstead Tree and Shrub Care in New Rochelle. He ran down a short list.
“Let’s see: In Larchmont, you need a $250 bond, and have to plant a replacement tree,” Mr. Almstead said. “In New Rochelle, you get more leeway if you have more than an acre of land. In Rye, you need to specify the tree’s distance from the road. In Pelham, there are no real regulations.” Mr. Almstead called such ordinances necessary in many cases, but they do add to delays and paperwork for tree companies, which can be fined along with homeowners for violating the rules.
In Yorktown Heights, the big issues have always been “ticks and taxes,” said Ron Buehl, a member of the tree commission. But now, the debate over trees on private land has joined them. “We’d bring up the need for an ordinance, and some people called it socialism,” Mr. Buehl recalled about earlier town meetings. “They said, ‘My home is my castle, and you can’t tell me I can’t cut down a 150-year-old oak on my property.'”
On Ravencrest Road, Ms. Sunshine pointed out the stumps in a neighbor’s yard where tall trees once provided privacy. She held “before” pictures- printouts of satellite photos she found online- that showed the live trees several years ago. “If people had to get a permit, it might encourage them to educate themselves and rethink the decision,” she said.
Related Resources:
New York Times- When Trees Fall Next Door, Neighbors Make the Noise
‘Planning’ Your Way to the Best Urban Forest