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Revisiting Tree Safety in Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy swept through Manhasset approximately nine months ago, and as relocations and renovations are finally becoming things of the past, many residents are turning their attention to the next hurricane--and the trees that could fall down with it.

“We just manage each call one at a time, and we’ve had quite a few,” said Donald Alberto, superintendent of the North Hills Building Department.

North Hills is not alone in responding to an increased number of residents with sensitivities to trees on or around their properties. Some villages catered to homeowners’ initial panic, quelling their nerves by allowing them to remove fear-inducing trees. Others contemplated altering their tree laws, or at least organizing them in a comprehensible way for the average resident.

Alongside the need to acknowledge--and legitimize--residents’ apprehensions, the majority of villages reported a sense of responsibility to remind the public of the beauty and benefits of these tall, sometimes daunting, plants.

Munsey Park

Munsey Park officials maintain that they are dedicated to helping residents understand the village’s tree laws and executing them fairly.

The Board of Trustees recently proposed amendments to categorize the current tree laws under umbrellas of village property, homeowner property and neighbor property. Deputy Mayor Sean Haggerty believes it will mitigate confusion around tree removals. Residents can propose modifications prior to the trustees’ vote at the coming board meeting on Sept. 11.

“When you experience a storm like Sandy and see, first-hand, the devastation that occurs when mature trees and branches come down, I think it’s very natural for residents to look to avoid similar damage in the future and take down trees that threaten their homes or property,” Haggerty said, noting that tree laws were “unfairly applied” in the past.

Munsey Park resident Richard Susi agrees. Numerous arborists told him that a tree standing in his front yard was more than 150 years old, but after denial of his permit request pre- and post-Hurricane Sandy, he did not expect to see it go--unless a strong gust of wind finally forced that to happen.

“There wasn’t much you could do under the old regime,” he said, noting that the Board of Trustees ultimately overruled this decision.  Upon removal, “it was obvious to us, as well as the arborist, that the tree was rotted six feet below the level of the ground and 15 feet up into the trunk.”

Munsey Park resident Kelly Towers was not fortunate enough to remove a tree from her property before it could inflict damage. Her family gathered in one portion of her L-shaped home during Hurricane Sandy after a large oak tree from her front yard fell through the other.

Shortly thereafter, she was invited to join the village’s Tree Committee, comprised of three members.  The committee receives detailed requests from homeowners seeking to take down trees, and a member makes a personal visit to each tree before approving or denying its removal.

Haggerty said the prior Tree Committee was overly focused on each individual tree’s health “and not enough on the threat to homes and property.” Towers maintains that the current group approves approximately 90 percent of residents’ requests.

“A healthy tree can damage a house, a healthy tree can harm a family,” she said. “I thought that black and white attitude toward ‘a healthy tree stays’ needed to be looked at, needed to be addressed.”

Former Tree Committee Chairwoman Deborah Miller maintains a different outlook, heavily weighting an arborist’s assessment--which all residents must obtain prior to submitting their requests--as vital to making a reasonable decision.

“Who can one trust, if not arborists? … if they don’t feel that the tree is in danger, then who can?” Miller said. “[Trees] are potential dangers. Some incredible gust of wind comes through, and the branch will fall off, and certainly that branch could land on a car or someone. Crossing the street isn’t too safe either. Does that mean everybody is going to stay home forever?”

Plandome

Most Plandome streets were open as of November 1, 2012, but this does not mean that Hurricane Sandy passed them by.   

“Our tree budget for the year was $29,025,” said Village Clerk/Treasurer Elizabeth Kaye. “We spent $46,436.” Kaye attributes the entirety of the budget overrun to Sandy.

Although Village Arborist Mike Rosicke noted 61 trees destroyed or damaged by the extreme wind gusts, Kaye maintains that homeowners are the best judges of a tree’s benefit--or risk--to their properties, and this is why the village does not require residents to obtain permits before removing any.

“The village has very large, old trees. And there have been homeowners who have thought, ‘This tree could go right across my house’ and they take it down,” she said, adding that Plandome officials constantly remind residents to hire licensed contractors to conduct the work.

Kaye said some residents called with complaints about neighbors’ post-Sandy tree removals, but this did not lead officials to contemplate changing laws.

In regard to Plandome-owned trees, found on large plots of village property or along the many berms in front of residents’ front yards, Kaye said “one here and there” incurred damage.

“I think because we do keep our trees well pruned and healthy, we probably fared better than a lot of other villages in the area,” she said.

Plandome Heights

Mayor Kenneth C. Riscia declined to comment on Plandome Heights’ post-Sandy destruction or tree laws.

According to the tree code published on the village website, it is “unlawful” for a landowner to harbor “dangerous or hazardous” trees, otherwise defined as those overhanging from private property and inflicting peril on adjoining public land or those using it.

Plandome Manor

Hurricane Sandy’s wind gusts felled approximately nine trees--partially or wholly--within Plandome Manor, leaving fences and accessory structures the most common culprits for private property damage, according to Village Clerk Joanna Palumbo.

The Board of Trustees instituted a 60-day limit for residents to remove dangerous trees in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but once this policy expired in February, Palumbo said that Building Inspector Edward Butt returned to assessing each tree desired for removal. If Butt cannot determine whether a tree poses a danger, he then requests residents to obtain a certified arborist’s letter indicating its health.

Village resident Debra Epstein approved of this 60-day policy, but upon inquiring about replacing these fallen trees, received an inconclusive answer. According to the minutes from the November 27, 2012 Board of Trustees meeting, Mayor Barbara Donno said its members were prioritizing other issues at the time.

“They took care of the dangerous trees, so that was fine, but I did not hear anything further on replacing village trees that came down,” said Epstein, who personally replaced one of the two trees that fell on her property.

“I know the village is concerned with liability now about these storms, and they’re afraid to plant trees, I think” she said. “I’m hoping that they change their minds and put some kind of program into place.”

At the time of press, the Village of Plandome Manor did not respond to the Manhasset Press’ request for information on this matter.

Flower Hill

“We had tons and tons of trees that became debris, that had fallen,” said Flower Hill Village Administrator Ronnie Shatzkamer, citing the exact amount of Hurricane Sandy-wielded tons at 214. “It’s a very heavily treed area.”

Flower Hill officials are now working to keep their trees healthy, to prevent more from falling during the next storm. Shatzkamer said some residents were pruning their trees to the point of “killing them,” inspiring amended laws regarding “substantial alteration” of a tree. Flower Hill uses this term to discuss cutting or drastic pruning of trees, as well as destroying its natural symmetry. Property owners who want to make substantial alteration must submit affidavits expressing their awareness of potentially detrimental outcomes, as well as pay for any resulting removal and replacement.

Village Trustee Karen Reichenbach, who also chairs the Tree Committee, is now focused on reorienting residents to the benefits of such plants. “[The committee’s] efforts were hindered by Hurricane Sandy,” she said, “because we had a lot more people applying to take down trees because they got nervous.”

Reichenbach said the village recently budgeted $10,000 to replanting. Each homeowner may request one tree for planting on the right-of-way between the property line and street, and although he or she will assume all responsibilities thereafter, the village is set to absorb all initial costs and labors.

The Tree Committee also encouraged tree planting at its Arbor Day celebration, Reichenbach said, during which every property owner received seedlings for a pine tree or a white dogwood, six red flowering dogwoods were raffled, and the Mankes family donated and planted a kousa dogwood on village property.

Zach Mankes is a firm believer that Flower Hill residents must re-acclimate themselves to the notion of living among trees, and this is something he regularly discusses with neighbors. “The connection to the environment is something that people are losing in our area. They’re overreacting to the storm … it’s like a knee-jerk reaction,” he said, “so I’m trying to stem the tide a little bit to educate people on the value of these trees.”

Mankes cited aesthetic beauty and natural shade as two of the many benefits.

Reichenbach and Mankes’ work is not limited to replanting trees, however. Reichenbach said the Tree Committee also educates residents on the signs of unhealthy trees--including shedding bark and fungal growth--in hopes that they will be discerning in their requests to remove these plants from their yards.

Flower Hill’s current laws require property owners to pay $50 for a permit to remove a dead or dying tree, and $150 for a permit to remove a healthy tree--in addition to a $500 bond, which the village holds until the tree is replaced by one of like kind.

Town of North Hempstead

In addition to local laws in villages and hamlets, residents are required to comply with tree-removal regulations from the Town of North Hempstead. The town has not changed any tree laws since the storm, requiring homeowners to obtain permits before removing trees from their front yards, and is maintaining an overall “proactive” approach to tree safety.

“If a homeowner is concerned about a tree that looks like it might fall onto their property, then we’ll cut it down and remove it,” said town spokesman Ryan Mulholland. “This effort is ongoing.” He confirmed that the Highway Department removed more than 2,000 trees in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as well as 40,000 tons of debris.