SEA CLIFF RESIDENTS DEBATE PROPER ROLE OF GOVERNMENT AT TREE ORDINANCE TOWN MEETING
September 19, 2013 -- Nearly 50 Sea Cliff residents gathered at Village Hall on Monday night to discuss the current village tree ordinance and offer their thoughts on whether the policy ought to be revised or eliminated altogether. While no consensus was reached, the Town Hall meeting was a civics lesson in local democracy, as issues ranging from the New York State Open Meetings Law to the wisdom of holding referenda in making public policy decisions were raised. The key issue, however, that dominated the evening’s discussion was the extent to which local government ought to be able to limit an individual’s property rights in an effort to promote the common good by protecting the “treed” character of the village.
The seating arrangement for the meeting was a bit unconventional, as chairs were set up in a large circle of equals with Village trustees interspersed among the other residents. Village Trustee and Tree Committee member, Carol Vogt, welcomed the audience, saying that no specific proposal was being discussed and that the meeting was therefore not a public hearing, but rather an opportunity, “not to tell you what we think, but to hear from you about what role government should have with regard to trees.”
Ms. Vogt notified participants that the meeting was being videotaped by a resident and that although this was not a “public hearing,” because a quorum of board trustees was present, the gathering probably fell under the purview of the New York State Open Meetings law, which guarantees citizens a legal right to record the proceedings of legislative bodies. After a brief and somewhat awkward discussion in which several residents indicated that they were uncomfortable with the taping, the filmmaker said he was within his legal right to do so and would record the meeting.
Trustee Vogt then introduced Mr. Russell Gorog, a resident member of the tree committee, who presided over the evening’s discussion. Mr. Gorog first gave some historical background to the current tree ordinance. The first village tree policy, he explained, was passed in 2005, in response to a developer clear cutting trees on a Shore Road property. That policy allowed residents to remove one tree per year without a permit. Any subsequent removals required approval. In an interview with Northwordnews last month, Trustee Carol Vogt explained that this previous policy was difficult to enforce as it was often unclear whether a resident had already removed a tree.
The current tree ordinance, adopted in 2010, led to the formation of the Tree Committee, which is currently made up of Trustee Vogt, Building Superintendent Drew Lawrence, and two community members - Cecelia Wheeler and Mr. Gorog - and requires that a resident wishing to take down a tree that is greater than eight inches diameter (originally six but amended upwards in 2012) at a height of 4.5 feet, first obtain a permit before removing it. Under the ordinance, the Tree Committee has the authority to grant or deny tree removal permits. (See Village Code to the right - 121-502)
According to Mr. Gorog, the Committee has received approximately 100 tree removal applications per year, and that only about 2% of them have been denied. Trustee Vogt explained later in the evening that the Tree Committee typically goes out every other Tuesday for three or four hours in response to tree removal applications to inspect the sites and render a decision.
As the meeting progressed, it became clearer why at this time the tree ordinance has been brought up for reconsideration. “Sandy changed everything.” The Mayor stated at one point. Elaborating, he explained that it has caused people to re-examine trees on or near their property, worrying that the next windstorm could bring a limb or entire tree down on their house. Ms. Vogt explained later that the “way we are going is not tenable with what the committee has to do” with regard to the number of tree removal applications and visits to homes.
Residents raised several issues over the course of Monday’s meeting. Some questioned
Mr. Gorog regarding the tree committee and the tree ordinance itself. When asked whether any member of the committee has expertise as an arborist, or are their opinions “subjective”? Mr. Gorog replied that Ms. Wheeler is a horticulturalist and that if there is uncertainty about the health of the tree, a professional arborist is brought in at village expense. With regard to whether or not there was a requirement that a new tree be planted for each tree that was removed, the response was that there is no such requirement. Some in the audience stated that they believed there should be.
When Trustee Vogt asked for a show of hands from participants who believed that there should be no tree policy at all, six or seven residents did so. Critics of the current policy questioned the authority of government to dictate what one does or does not do with his or her property. One gentleman said, “I can euthanize my dog – I don’t need a permit for that – but I need permission to take down a tree? ” He continued, “We are conscientious homeowners, we can be trusted to do the right thing.” Another resident agreed, “We need to be very careful about allowing government to tell us about how we live in or what we do with our homes.” She continued, “I think homeowners have a right to determine what is aesthetically pleasing to them.”
Another resident argued that there should be no restrictions on homeowners, but that the Village did need to continue to regulate tree removal when it came to development. Developers he maintained should put forward a landscaping plan when going before the planning board, and that a certificate of completion should not be issued until that plan is carried out. However, “for a private homeowner to have to get a permit, is a level of government we don’t need.” The village could however, he continued, perhaps encourage tree planting. The issue of liability was also raised, when one speaker asked the group to consider a situation in which the tree committee refused to grant a removal permit, and the tree fell, causing injury or death, or damage to a home.
Supporters of the current policy emphasized the impact that tree removal could have on the character of the community and on neighbors. “If you take down a tree,” one resident contended, “it affects other residents as well. What about the property rights of neighbors?” Another said that the tree committee stops residents from making bad decisions. And still another added later that some people “don’t know any better until the damage is done.” In response to the comment that the village government should not tell people what to do with their trees, a supporter of the ordinance replied, “We are the government.” Another added towards the end of the discussion that “we all benefit from trees. They will be here longer than us and bring great value to the community.” One resident explained that she had no problem with the tree committee -that when she had to have a tree removed sooner than later, the Tree Committee was very responsive, and the matter taken care of quickly.
Both Mayor Kennedy and Trustee Vogt encouraged attendees to offer recommendations - “Should the minimum diameter be increased? Should there be no law at all, and the focus be educating the community?” The Mayor asked. A resident who had earlier spoken out against the ordinance, said, “There’s your answer – education.” She suggested that perhaps educational pamphlets could be distributed. Trustee Vogt, asked residents, “can you see an ordinance that strikes a balance?” One said that the diameter requirement should be increased to as much as 18 inches. Another suggested planting new trees to replace those that had fallen or had been removed. Still another suggested that perhaps regulations should take into consideration whether or not the trees provide a “canopy.”
Responding to Trustee Vogt’s question, a resident suggested that the matter be put up to a vote by the community in a popular referendum. That proposal was received with skepticism by another resident who expressed concern about misconceptions getting in the way of many people’s ability to cast an informed vote on the issue. “We would have to educate the community about what a referendum is – never mind about what it should say.” She explained.
As the meeting neared its conclusion, Mr. Gorog offered some of his thoughts explaining that he was frustrated about seeing healthy trees coming down, and few people planting new trees. He said that he would like to see a policy that requires a person to plant a tree if he takes one down. “What do we want to be here for our children and grandchildren?” He concluded.
At 10 pm, the meeting came to an end as Mayor Kennedy encouraged residents to e-mail their ideas and recommendations to the Village Board, and at the urging of a resident agreed that a suggestion box in Village Hall would be a good idea. Trustee Vogt thanked the audience for its participation, and in conclusion said that the discussion was “a real debate about the proper role of government.” And that this is representative of “the national conversation that has been going on for the last 10 or 15 years, whether it is about trees or other issues.”
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SEA CLIFF VILLAGE TREE ORDINANCE (Sea Cliff Village Code)
§ 121-102 Legislative findings and purpose.
The Board of Trustees hereby finds that there is a direct relationship between preservation and planting of trees and associated vegetation in sufficient quantity in the Village of Sea Cliff and the health, safety and welfare of Village residents. Trees and associated vegetation promote natural,
scenic and aesthetic values, stabilize soil, control water pollution by preventing soil erosion and flooding, absorb air pollution, preserve the balance of oxygen in the air, yield microclimatic effects, offer a natural noise
barrier, provide a natural habitat for wildlife, provide shade to Village residents, and create a bucolic atmosphere. The removal and destruction of trees in the Village deprives the Village residents of these benefits, disrupts fundamental ecological systems and adversely affects the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the Village. The purpose of this chapter is to prevent the indiscriminate destruction or removal of trees within the boundaries of the Village and to provide for the relocation or replacement of trees that may be destroyed or removed.
ARTICLE III - TREE COMMITTEE
121-301 Tree Committee.
The Board of Trustees hereby creates a Tree Committee (the
"Committee"), which shall consist of three members, each appointed by the Mayor, subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees. The members of the Committee shall serve without compensation. The Committee shall include the Building Superintendent, one member of the Board of Trustees and one resident. The term of the resident member shall be a three-year term, and the terms of the member of the Board of Trustees and the Building Superintendent shall be for a one-year period, each commencing at 12 noon of the first Monday in April. Any Committee member appointed at any time other than as aforesaid shall be appointed for a term set to expire on the immediately forthcoming first Monday in April at 11:59 a.m. If a vacancy occurs during the term of any member, a successor shall be appointed for the unexpired portion of the member's existing term.
§ 121-302 Power and authority.
The Committee shall have the following powers and authority.
A. Tree removal applications. The Committee shall have original jurisdiction over the granting or denying of all tree removal application permits.
B. Site plan/subdivision review. The Committee shall review all site plan and subdivision applications that involve the removal of one or more trees. In accordance with the procedures provided in this chapter, the Committee shall report its findings and recommendations to the Planning Board prior to the Planning Board taking action on any application for site plan or subdivision approval where one or more trees are proposed to be removed.
§ 121-401 Prohibitions.
A. It shall be unlawful for any person without a tree removal permit to remove, destroy or substantially alter the habitat of a tree on any real property in the Village, whether or not such property is owned by the person.
B. It shall be unlawful for any person without a tree removal permit to cause the removal, destruction or substantial alteration of the habitat of a tree on any real property in the Village, whether or not such property is owned by the person.
C. The prohibitions contained in this section shall not apply in an emergency situation, as determined by the Village Building Superintendent.
121-505 Removal or
alteration of trees endangering the public.
§ 121-501 Application for tree removal permit.
A. No person shall perform, or cause to be performed, the removal, Destruction, or substantial alteration of a tree, without first obtaining approval of the Committee as hereinafter prescribed and a tree removal permit from the Building Superintendent.
B. The application shall be made on such forms as may be prescribed by the Building Superintendent and shall include, but not be limited to, the following:
(1) The name and address of the applicant.
(2) The purpose of the proposed removal, destruction or substantial alteration.
(3) The location of the tree or trees.
(4) A sketch or plan of the area indicating the following:
(a) Existing trees on the site, their types and sizes.
(b) Locations and sizes of trees for which the permit is sought.
(c) Identification of any diseased, dead or damaged trees.
(d) Location of any existing or planned improvements on the real property.
(e) Any proposed grade changes that might adversely affect or endanger any trees on the real property or any adjoining real property.
(f) The size, species and planting method of all proposed plans for replanting, replacement or remediation.
(g) Any additional information that the Building Superintendent may deem necessary for evaluation of the application by the Committee.
(5) The name of the tree company to perform the work under the permit.
(6) Written consent of the owner or owners of the real property if the applicant is not the owner.
(7) Any additional information that the Building Superintendent may deem necessary for evaluation of the application by the Committee.
§ 121-502 Criteria for Committee determination.
The decision of the Committee will be based on the following criteria:
A. The condition of the tree or trees the applicant seeks to remove with respect to disease and danger of falling, proximity to existing or proposed structures and interference with utility services.
B. The necessity of the removal or alteration of the tree or trees.
C. The impact of the removal upon ecological systems.
D. The character established at the proposed site of removal with respect to existing vegetation management and impact on stormwater runoff.
E. The impact of any removal or alteration on the existing screening of any public street bordering the real property.
F. Whether the tree is a specimen tree.
§ 121-503 Issuance of tree removal permit.
If the Committee determines in writing that a permit should
issue, the Building Superintendent shall issue such permit subject to any
conditions recommended by the Committee.
§ 121-504 Fees.
A. The application fee shall be as prescribed from time to time by the Board of Trustees.
B. The Committee, in making a determination concerning the removal of trees on real property in the Village may, upon notice to the applicant, obtain the services of a professional arborist or landscape architect regarding the advisability of removal or the viability of the existing tree. The cost of this professional evaluation shall be borne by the applicant. No such professional review shall commence until the applicant submits a sum to the Building Department sufficient to pay for the cost of such professional review, in an amount to be determined by the Building Superintendent in each instance.
§ 121-505 Removal or alteration of trees endangering the public.
A. Private property. Any tree growing on real property, which, in the opinion of the Building Superintendent, is endangering or constitutes a danger to a public street or public places or the members of the public using the same, or which in any way endangers the usefulness of a public utility or sewer, or which by reason of infestation or blight endangers other trees in the Village, shall be removed or the habitat thereof altered by the owner of the real property as directed in writing by the Building Superintendent. If the property owner fails to comply with the written directive of the Building Superintendent within the time specified by the Building Superintendent, the Village may then take the action directed by the Building Superintendent and assess the cost thereof against the property owner. The directive from the Building Superintendent shall clearly state the source of the danger, the action to be taken, the date by which such action must be taken and shall be served on the owner of the real property personally or by certified or registered mail, return receipt requested, addressed to said owner at the last known address for said owner on the tax records of the Village. If served by mail, the notice shall be deemed received three days after the notice is deposited in a depository maintained by the United States Postal Service.
B. Public property. No tree shall be removed by a person from any public street or Village-owned property without the prior written consent of the Building Superintendent. The Building Superintendent shall only grant such consent if the tree constitutes a hazard to property or persons using the public streets or if the root system of the tree is causing excessive damage to the curb, gutters or streets. No Village employee shall perform, or cause to be performed, a tree removal act on a public street or Village-owned property without the prior written consent of the Building Superintendent.