In a 5-2 vote, the Scarsdale Board of Trustees passed new amendments Feb. 13 to the village tree code designed to address clear-cutting throughout Scarsdale.
Clear-cutting is the one-time mass removal of trees and is commonly frowned upon by environmentalists.
According to the amendments, any person removing a tree or trees with a total DBH — diameter at breast height — equal or more than 48 inches must plant a “replacement tree of a genus and species expected to grow to maturity at a similar size to the removed tree … for every 24 inches of DBH removed up to 120 inches of aggregate DBH.”
Further, property owners must plant “two replacement trees of genus and species expected to grow to maturity at a similar size to the removed tree or trees … for every 24 inches of DBH removed above 120 inches of aggregate DBH and less than 240 inches aggregate DBH.”
Property owners must also “plant three replacement trees of a genus and species expected to grow to maturity at a similar size to the removal tree or trees … for every 24 inches of DBH removed above 240 inches aggregate DBH.”
According to the code, residents will be fined between $250 and $1,000 for the first two trees removed without a permit. Any additional removal without a permit will cost between $500 and $2,500 per tree. If the village determines a property owner has removed an “excessive number of trees without a permit, the village justice shall have the discretion to set a fine in excess of [the aforementioned] limits.”
During a public hearing prior to the vote, Trustee Carl Finger, chairman of the board’s law committee, emphasized these amendments would have no affect on homeowners removing “dead, dying, diseased or hazardous trees.” In such cases, property owners are not required to plant a replacement tree.
Citing permit data on file with the village, Finger said the clear-cutting amendments would have no effect on approximately 70 percent of the Scarsdale population.
During the public hearing, Kingston Road resident Joan Weissman voiced support for the amendments, but said the village could go even further in its effort to preserve Scarsdale’s tree canopy.
“Common sense dictates that every tree that is cut down regardless of its size has to be replaced, and each tree has to be replaced by at least one that will be similar in coverage and maturity,” said Weissman.
She noted municipalities across the country similar to Scarsdale — such as Short Hills, New Jersey, and Winnetka, Illinois — have much stricter enforcement of the local tree code.
Weissman recalled a conversation she had with Dr. Nina Bassuk, an expert in horticulture at Cornell University, who told Weissman oversight is very important in enforcing a tree code.
Weissman noted multiple municipalities near Scarsdale have a full-time or part-time arborist while Scarsdale does not.
“The fact that Scarsdale does not have an arborist on staff is startling and should be rectified,” she said. “Our code is meaningless unless it is enforced.”
Scarsdale’s tree code mentions the use of a “tree expert” and the issuance of fines if someone does not adhere to the code.
The code defines “tree expert” as “an ISA-certified arborist or other professional certified by a recognized program of higher education or governmental agency as a tree expert.” (The ISA is the International Society of Arboriculture.)
The village will send a tree expert to determine if a tree is hazardous and, if it is, the village will not require the resident or developer to replace the tree.
The word “hazardous” was a point of contention during the public hearing for Trustees Jane Veron and Justin Arest.
“[A] concern I have is the creation of the definition for ‘hazardous,’” said Arest. “I understand our engineer [David Goessl] had some concerns, but unfortunately we did not have enough discussion on this.” During the period in which the board was constructing the code changes, Goessl said he was receiving permit applications from residents in which they were arbitrarily deeming their trees hazardous. Therefore, he felt a definition was necessary.
Arest said the code’s requirements for a tree to be deemed hazardous include the tree’s proximity to a potential target on which it could fall and the opinion of a tree expert.
Arest said the code’s requirements for a hazardous tree does not address a scenario in which a tree expert makes a mistake.
However, there is a provision in the code to allow a resident to appeal the village engineer’s decision, should the village engineer deny a tree removal permit.
Veron recalled the major storm last fall which brought down multiple trees in the village and led several residents to complain at board meetings about previous amendments to the tree code.
Veron noted a tree expert would not have deemed some of the trees that fell during the storm hazardous.
“I think our homeowners and those we represent want to keep their families safe and would not take down trees without care,” said Veron. “[However,] they have the right to take down trees they think put their families at risk.”
Trustee Lena Crandall, chairman of the board’s sustainability committee and one of the five trustees who voted in favor of the amendments, said she believes safety is an extremely high priority.
However, she said any resident can reach out to an ISA-certified arborist, most of whom will inspect a tree for damage, disease and hazardous conditions free of charge. This option may address some of the fear residents have about trees on their property, Crandall said,
In addition, Crandall emphasized the benefits of keeping trees on a property.
“Storms are getting stronger but the trees we have actually help to slow the wind,” Crandall said. “In fact, if a tree is properly situated on your property, it not only serves as a wind block, but it also helps to cool your home in the summer and it helps to keep your home warmer in the winter.”
Issues of property rights also resurfaced during the public hearing.
Tisdale Road resident Robert Berg reiterated his longstanding view that developers are the ultimate culprits of clear-cutting. He told the board the clear-cutting issue should be addressed through the land use process and he called the newest tree code amendments “overreaching” vis-à-vis residents’ rights.
Trustee Finger said the language in the code is not targeted specifically at developers, but developers probably help make up the 30 percent of property owners removing large numbers of trees. Finger also noted that if residents have one or two trees on their property that are no more than 24 inches DBH, the code allows residents to remove those trees as-of-right.