Amityville Village trustees are considering regulations to protect trees that would cover those on private property.
Long Island municipalities from the Town of Brookhaven to some Nassau County villages have similar laws in place. Amityville officials say the village has lost close to 1,000 trees over the past 15 years to the lethal Asian Longhorned Beetle and to storms such as Tropical Storm Irene and superstorm Sandy.
Village neighborhoods once shaded by grand oaks, maples and sycamores have been transformed, longtime residents say. Meanwhile, a village program that once provided homeowners with free trees and tree-planting has been suspended because of budget constraints.
The proposed regulations, which trustees said could change before a Sept. 28 public hearing, would require people and businesses to seek a permit before removing or radically pruning trees more than 32 inches in circumference, measured at 4 feet above ground level.
Additionally, all trees near construction sites would have to be shielded by a fence.
Applications would require a site plan and photographs of the targeted tree, for starters; the entire proposed application has 13 such requirements. Plans for planting replacement trees would be optional but the permit requirement is decidedly not: anyone who removes a tree without a permit could face fines of as much as $1,000 per tree and jail time.
"This is a difficult process because it mixes government, the environment and public interest colliding with those sacred rights of property owners to do as they would wish on their own property," said village attorney Richard Handler, who is helping develop the legislation.
Exemptions to the permit rule would apply, including for trees on some sites where a building plan has already been issued. In addition, as many as three trees smaller than 32 inches around per parcel could be felled annually without oversight.
But most would-be lumberjacks would have to apply for a permit to the Department of Public Works or a tree board yet to be formed whose members would likely be the village's volunteer parks commissioners, village officials said.
No decision has been made yet on whether the application will carry a fee, but the proposal calls for a rigorous review of not just the condition of the targeted tree but the possible effects of removal on habitat, vistas and the character of the community.
While trustees were unanimously pro-tree at a recent Village Board meeting -- Kevin Smith lauded their health-giving properties and Nick LaLota noted that "They engage in photosynthesis, and who could be against that?" -- officials acknowledge that they are entering difficult terrain by proposing to regulate trees on private property.
Some warn that an overly strict law could hamper development that officials say the village needs to return it to financial health.
"We want to make sure that if we're imposing any burden, we do so with restraint," LaLota said. The Village Board should "pause" before moving forward with any laws that could affect revitalization of the downtown area surrounding Route 110, a board priority, he said.
The law could affect significant projects, including a vehicle storage lot proposed by car dealer Security Dodge near Sunrise Highway and redevelopment of the Brunswick Hospital property off Route 110, a property that was once the largest source of tax revenue for the village.
"Is this another level of regulation that we really need?" said Bruce Kennedy, the former village attorney who is representing Security Dodge in its application.
The costs of such a measure in time and labor would likely outweigh its potential benefits, he argued. "This falls in the category, in my mind, of 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' " Kennedy said.
Corinne Budde, a horticulturalist who is the Village Parks Commission chairwoman, said some sort of protection is needed to reverse the loss of canopy.Many of the century-old giants that once distinguished Amityville from its neighbors are gone, she said. "There has to be balance. You can't just come in and wipe out everything that's there without considering the age of the tree, the value and type of the tree," she said. "But it has to be reasonable. Development has to go on for the success of the village."