Sandy forces examination of trees, codes

Ronkonkoma house destroyed by a tree after Hurricane

Ronkonkoma house destroyed by a tree after Hurricane Sandy rolled through the area. (Oct. 31, 2012) (Credit: Ed Betz)

Long Island homeowners are considering whether to put the chain saw to some once-beloved trees after superstorm Sandy's violent gusts toppled tens of thousands of them, smashing houses and cars, ripping down power lines and costing lives.

Tree service companies, still busy removing trees felled by the Oct. 29 storm and the nor'easter that followed, are fielding anxious calls from homeowners for inspections and removals. Some villages and towns with strict tree preservation codes, such as Munsey Park, Old Brookville, East Hills and the Town of Oyster Bay, are considering loosening them to allow cutting down healthy but potentially hazardous trees.

"There is definitely a real awareness of what can happen living underneath something that weighs 30,000 to 40,000 pounds," said David Cion, owner of Long Island Lumberjack Tree Service in Patchogue, who recently took down two mature oaks from a Lake Ronkonkoma property where debris from a tree smashing through the roof briefly knocked out an 11-year-old boy.

"We're hearing, 'Oh, I want to take more trees down, I'm worried they're going to fall on my house,' " said Thomas Golon of Wonderland Tree Care in Oyster Bay. "People are nervous, and I can understand why."

He, like most arborists, tries to calm homeowners, assuring them they can preserve most trees to withstand typical storms through regular inspections, pruning and care.

Sandy's 'significant' effect

But they agree that all bets are off in a storm as fierce as Sandy, whose gusts of up to 90 mph caused devastation to trees that was historic in scope. Some compared it to Hurricane Gloria in 1985, others to the Great Hurricane of 1938. On Long Island, three people died under falling trees in the storm, and two more died clearing damaged trees."This absolutely had by far the most significant effect on trees in my lifetime," said Doug Akerley, vice president of operations at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury. He has worked in the business almost 40 years.

Old oaks that had survived half a century of storms and wind and ice were leveled in this one, he said. "I saw some areas in Brookville that were totally wooded properties that will be fields next year."

In Huntington, town officials said Sandy felled 2,500 town trees -- more than double the 1,100 lost to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Islandwide, officials estimate the losses as likely in the tens of thousands.

Sandy claimed not just weak or decayed trees, but the healthy and robust, too, toppling thick-trunked oaks by the roots and snapping pines in half.

"The best trees came down, the best trees with the fullest canopies, the densest crowns and the tallest height," said Dwight Andrews, an arborist and landscape designer in West Islip. "They tended to catch the most wind."

Josh Spinella, 11, won't soon forget what he went through: He was briefly knocked out by falling debris when a massive oak crashed into an upstairs bedroom of his family's Lake Ronkonkoma home.

His siblings, ages 12 and almost 5, had just left the room. "He had to crawl his way out, he was hysterical," said dad Paul Spinella, 45.

The fallen tree was removed, along with two other massive old oaks near the house.

"My partner didn't want any of these trees from the minute we moved in 12 years ago, and I said, 'I love them, I want them,' " Spinella said. "The tree that fell down is older than the house; it's 150 years old. . . . When it fell and almost killed our son, I conceded that big, old trees might be dangerous."

Before Sandy, towns and LIPA faced criticism for backlogs in tree-trimming and removal of potentially vulnerable trees on public lands. But a utility spokesman asserted that tree trimming may not have helped much in this superstorm, in which tree damage was a prime culprit for prolonged outages.

"These were whole trees being uprooted," said spokesman Alberto Bianchetti.

Most of the trees that fell, he said, were on private property or rights of way. LIPA officials say about 500 trees posing severe risks to wires are removed annually, with the permission of a town or property owner.

Preservation codes eyedIn the North Shore villages known for their strict tree preservation codes, there are new post-Sandy attitudes.

The code in Munsey Park -- a North Shore village of 840 homes where 80 trees fell and five tree-damaged homes were condemned -- requires permits to remove or even prune a tree. Healthy trees that don't interfere with a property's function are protected.

But Mayor Harry Nicolaides said the village board will consider changes to allow removal "of a perfectly healthy tree if it were replaced with a more strategically placed tree of a species less prone to damage" or with "a younger tree that hasn't reached full maturity."

In nearby East Hills, where hundreds of trees fell, the village board will vote on a similar revision to the local tree code this month, said Mayor Michael Koblenz.

In Old Brookville, an affluent village of large homes on large properties, almost two dozen houses were damaged by some of the hundreds of fallen trees. After Sandy, Mayor Bernie Ryba visited some of the damaged properties and spontaneously gave owners permission to take down trees that worried them -- trees otherwise protected by a preservation code.

At his own home, narrowly missed by several falling trees, Ryba plans to remove a tall pine. "If it falls the right way, it's going to go right through the house," he said.

Even before the storm, the Town of Oyster Bay had begun a reassessment of its code to exempt homeowners desiring to remove a tree or two.

But in the Town of North Hempstead, Supervisor Jon Kaiman said that while it was time for "a healthy analysis of tree policies," the leafy character of local communities had to be preserved.

"I don't see us giving a green light to clear-cut yards," he said, noting that if any tree deemed potentially hazardous could be removed, then "every tree within 80 feet of a house would be taken down and I don't think that's the answer."

Preventing problemsAfter Sandy, one question is not just where trees should stand, but what kind.

Arborists said an individual tree's fate often depended on soil conditions or its location in the path of a wind burst. But some species fared worse than others. Soft-wooded Eastern white pine trunks snapped in half. Branches were sheared off weak Callery pears, and shallow-rooted maples and spruces toppled, roots and all.

Dr. Jonathan Lehrer, assistant professor of ornamental horticulture at Farmingdale State College, said some of the damage reflects "poor practices going back in many cases decades."

Tall, soft-wooded trees like white pines, he said, were put on small lots near homes. Silver and Norway maples -- fast-growing and therefore weak-wooded -- were planted en masse as street trees after World War II, and are now all aging and dying together. Confined curbside locations cramp root systems of large trees.

Homeowners can reduce risks by planting smaller trees near wires or homes. The Spinella family in Lake Ronkonkoma plans to follow such advice. "We'll probably plant a weeping cherry or something that doesn't get more than 20 feet or so," Spinella said. "We'll be regretting it in the summer when we have no shade."

Phil Healey, superintendent of public works in Lynbrook, agreed the trade-offs can be tough.

"We all love the big trees in the summertime; you can't beat them," he said. "But you see the scope of the problem in a large storm. You see what happens if you don't have the right tree in the right place or if you don't care properly for the tree."

Nicolaides didn't expect wholesale removals, but said trees need to be assessed.

"If this became Munsey Meadow instead of Munsey Park, we'd have an even louder hue and cry," he said, "but the reality is if we have aging trees, we owe it to ourselves to always take a second look."

TREE SURVIVAL TIPS

1. Help cultivate deep-root systems by irrigating deeply. How often to water depends on age and species of plant, soil type, steepness of slope and weather conditions, but daily watering is far too much. Watering may not be necessary for established trees in normal rain conditions.

2. Give root systems enough space to grow, and take care not to compact or injure them.

3. In flooded areas, leach salts from soil by applying 1 inch of water every other day for 20 days, for a total of 10 inches. Apply gypsum at this time to fine-textured soils containing silt or clay.

4. For tests and analysis of soluble salts in your soil, contact Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County at 631-727-4126 or email sib7@cornell.edu or aw242@cornell.edu. Private labs also can test for soluble salts.

Source: Cornell Cooperative Extension

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