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Tree cutting at Nassau preserve spurs anger

Todd Tilton, left, and Michael Miller walk past

Todd Tilton, left, and Michael Miller walk past one of the downed trees in the Welwyn Preserve. (Dec. 13, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

A Nassau County contractor chopped down 111 trees in Nassau's Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove, angering advocates for the wooded former Pratt estate.

The mass tree cutting a month after superstorm Sandy provoked complaints from some neighbors, park advocates and members of the North Shore Audubon Society. They accused the county of indiscriminately taking down trees to increase its reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I'm sick over it," said Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, (D-Glen Cove), whose North Shore district includes the 204-acre preserve. "It takes them a minute to cut down the trees that have been growing for 100 years."

Nassau officials denied the allegations that the county was trying to increase its FEMA funding, and the advocates could not provide proof. Nassau said the contractor took down only trees that experts assessed as dangerous.

However, officials acknowledge that a crew paid by the tree was mistakenly sent into the preserve initially instead of a team paid for time worked, accounting for the initial burst of tree cutting.

"No way would I condone taking down trees arbitrarily," said legislative Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow). "I have done my research. No trees were removed in an arbitrary fashion. Those that posed a risk to people who use the preserve had to be removed."

Lawmakers on Dec. 3 questioned the Welwyn tree cutting before the Rules Committee approved a $20 million contract with Looks Great Services of Huntington to handle tree debris removal for the county after Sandy. Looks Great, which Nassau used for tree debris removal after Tropical Storm Irene last year, did not return calls for comment.

Ken Arnold, assistant to the commissioner of the county Public Works Department, said Nassau expects to spend at least $40 million for debris removal.Removing Long Beach debris now stored at Nickerson Beach in Lido Beach is expected to cost another $20 million. Looks Great is the general contractor for the Long Beach work, Arnold said.

County officials said they expect FEMA to reimburse Nassau for 75 percent to 100 percent of its costs.

Looks Great is one of four contractors recommended by the federal government and selected by the county in 2009, during the administration of Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi, to be part of its debris management plan, Deputy Public Works Commissioner Richard Millet said. Looks Great was chosen because it was the only one of the four contractors that could provide Nassau with all the crews and equipment needed after Sandy, he said.


Campaign contributions

A check of campaign records shows that Looks Great contributed $10,745 to County Executive Edward Mangano this year. The company donated $2,500 last year to the Hicksville Republican Club, which is run by Mangano's chief deputy Rob Walker, three weeks after the county activated Looks Great for Irene debris removal. State records did not show any contributions to Suozzi.

County spokesman Michael Martino said the contributions had no influence on the county's use of the firm.

"Looks Great was authorized by Nassau County in March 2009 to handle major tree removal in the county, eight months before County Executive Mangano taking office," he said.Looks Great crews worked throughout the county taking down storm-damaged trees after Sandy, but it was the widespread cutting in Welwyn -- one of 16 county preserves -- that prompted complaints.

After Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) asked about Welwyn, Millet sent her a log of the preserve work. It shows that 31 trees had been uprooted and were on the ground when crews arrived on Nov. 25. Over the next four days, crews took down another 111 trees, primarily because of damaged crowns or because the tree was leaning dangerously, the log shows.

"We're all sad to see so many trees lost in a storm, but I'm happy to see that the work that was done is backed up with fact," Jacobs said.


Continued criticism

Others remain upset.

Bruce Piel, head of the parks advocacy group ParcNassau, sent a mass email complaining about the "Chainsaw Massacre" of trees. "So why is Nassau County destroying our preserves? Well, it seems the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is paying the county 'tree money' to remove hurricane damaged trees. This bonanza was not to be ignored but to be exploited!" he wrote.

Martino called it "preposterous to think Nassau County would allow any trees to be removed for reasons other than protecting the public's safety." He said if trees "meet certain criteria, such as 50 percent damage, a split trunk or broken branches . . . it is in the interest of public safety to remove the tree."

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