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Sag Harbor Asks, Which Trees Bear Saving?

Thu, 11/16/2023 - 10:06

Preservation measure brings ’em out of woodwork

The streetscape on Union Street in Sag Harbor is decidedly different after the removal of trees on a property there.
Christopher Gangemi

Size does matter.

That’s what numerous Sag Harbor residents have been telling their village board regarding the width of tree trunks. A proposed law, the topic of a well-attended, continuing public hearing Tuesday night, would allow a village resident to remove any tree with a diameter at breast height of 18 inches or less, without a permit.

The audience was firmly against the 18-inch limit, instead pressing the board to require a permit before trees more than 12 inches in diameter at breast height (or D.B.H.) can be removed. Most people stated that trees had positive impacts on their lives, the community, and the environment. The meeting lasted three hours, with the discussion about tree diameter taking a third of the time.

Even if the board agreed to the 12-inch diameter, Douglas Newby pointed out, “This doesn’t mean larger trees cannot be cut down, it means there are checks and balances before the tree is removed.”

Where did the 18-inch debate begin? In part, perhaps, with the landscape architect Ed Hollander, who helped design Steinbeck Park. Mr. Hollander is well known to the village board and was recently named to its Open Spaces Committee.

“I have read that there continues to be a push from some non-professionals to reduce this to be a 12 or 15” size,” he wrote to the board on Oct. 18. “There is really no science that would validate these numbers.” However, in his email, he offered no science of his own. “While it varies by species most arborists and professionals would consider trees approaching maturity to be in the 24-inch diameter range. Unless the board wants a permit required to remove almost any and every tree in the village, which would be an administrative nightmare, the board should stick with an 18-inch minimum.”

His email was signed by 21 other professionals.

Not everyone was impressed. Silas Marder, whose family has owned the landscaping company Marders for over 50 years, said he supported a law that set the diameter from eight to 12 inches. He spoke at length about the scientific benefit trees have to soil, air quality, habitat, and to humans. “The benefit trees bring to people is not governed by size,” he said, adding that he could have amassed a large list of tree professionals to come out against the proposed 18-inch diameter. But, he said, tree legislation “should not be reduced to a battle over how many industry friends a landscape professional can get to sign a petition.”

Another tree pro who spoke at the hearing was Jackson Dodds, a board-certified arborist, who supported a 12-inch diameter. “The skyline has changed in the coverage, the canopy,” he said, and due to climate change, larger trees are at greater risk. “If we start cutting at 12 or 13 inches, there will be no second or third generation to fill in for trees lost later.”

A lot of familiar faces spoke for lowering the diamater. Eileen Rosenfeld, who noted that she’s been pushing for the legislation over four administrations, read from a letter she’d sent the board. “The village has indicated they have received advice from professionals suggesting an 18-inch diameter. This position dramatically conflicts with all the certified arborists’ advice we have received to date,” it said.

“The trees of Sag Harbor belong to us as a community,” said Mary Ann Eddy, “just like the bays and coves. It’s not important where their roots reside. We have to be very careful. Once they come down, they do not come back.”

Former mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, who served from 2017 until 2021, acknowledged that Ms. Rosenfeld, with Jayne Young, had brought tree preservation to her attention the first week she was sworn in. “I do shudder to think of how many trees came down in the years since.” She offered a quote she said was a favorite of Aidan Corish, a trustee, paraphrasing Voltaire: “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.” “Please get it done at 12 inches,” she said. “If it’s too onerous, it can be adjusted.”

After everyone spoke, Mr. Hollander spent minutes listing his personal achievements and awards won by his firm. “I appreciate the enthusiasm of April and all of her gang,” he said, but offered no scientific argument for the 18-inch limit. He said tree preservation should be distinct from clearing restrictions, where an eight to 12-inch D.B.H. may be acceptable, but highlighted that the code had to be “enforceable.”

In the end, Mr. Hollander offered a compromise of sorts. “The board should not absolutely take the view of the landscape professionals, and the board should not take the view absolutely of other people. Let’s settle on 15 inches, and let’s get it done.”

Maziar Behrooz, an architect and village resident, responded. “Mr. Hollander grouped the people who spoke as ‘April’s crew,’ but these are individuals who stood for their own opinions,” he said. “To diminish their thinking by grouping them isn’t right. Then to go on and list all the accolades — all we need to do is look at what they’ve done in Sag Harbor — Long Wharf and Steinbeck Park. I’ll just say, they’re not like boardwalks in Venice.”

Mr. Corish came out against both the lowest and highest diameter limits. “I just haven’t decided if it’s 12 or 15, but it’s definitely not eight and not 18.”

Mayor Thomas Gardella was swayed as well. He said he had offered the 15-inch compromise to the board, exempting invasives, which could be cut regardless of size, but “I think we need to reconsider going to the 12-inch diameter.” He was especially moved by Ms. Mulcahy’s remarks, he added. “I feel we’re getting closer.”

In other news from Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted to lower the speed limit on Suffolk Street Extension to 25 miles per hour. A public hearing to reduce the minimum size of accessory dwelling units to 280 square feet was closed and the law passed, to approval from affordable housing advocates. Finally, Mayor Gardella reported that 900 hot dogs were given out by the Fire Department on Halloween, and the board voted unanimously to allow Santa’s Mailbox to be placed adjacent to the Municipal Building.


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