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Trees on Smithtown's roads and sidewalks down for a count

Forester Tom Colella surveys plane trees on Rose

Forester Tom Colella surveys plane trees on Rose Street in Smithtown on April 8. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Some 50,000 trees line the right of way along Smithtown's streets, and the town is conducting a census to precisely count, map, classify and record basic information about them.

They are public property but much of that information has never been recorded or exists only partially and imprecisely on developers’ subdivision maps from the 1960s and 70s, the town’s boom years. As town workers compile it, they are changing a decades-old approach reliant on resident requests for new trees or care for ailing trees to one focused on planning and regular maintenance, said David Barnes, director of the Department of Environment and Waterways.

"It’s a much more active way of managing," he said. "We’ll be able to look in our database and see species and size," responding faster than before or without waiting for a request. The town has for years removed more street trees than it planted; by reshaping its $425,000 community forestry budget to spend less on costly tree removals and more on pruning and planting, Barnes hopes to reverse that trend.

Staffers divided the town into 20 districts, each with at least 1,000 trees and a few, with remnants of native forest, with many more. They plan to count four districts a year, finishing in five years. The next census will start when they finish.

The idea is not new: Ithaca and New York City keep their own rolling inventories and, on Long Island, Huntington, Head of the Harbor and Rockville Centre have done counts or plan to. New York City uses hundreds of trained volunteers; Smithtown chiefly uses Tom Colella, one of two urban foresters and a rare field worker in Barnes’ mostly administrative department.

Colella parked his town truck on Rose Street near the Smithtown Landing Golf Course one recent afternoon to count.

He is 25, with a tree tattoo on his left arm, and on this day he wore a T-shirt that said "One, Two, Tree," a keepsake from New York City’s 2015 census. Towering London planes lined the block with some spindly young flowering cherry trees. The planes had probably been planted when the neighborhood was laid out, he said.

He measured the diameter of each tree with a tape held breast-height and wrote the information on a clipboard with 13 information fields including street address, utility line clearance and maintenance recommendations. He counted 52 trees, taking about 30 seconds per tree. Later he would enter his information into ArcGIS software — the GIS stands for geographic information system — that the town uses to make maps and analyze information.

"This is a tough place for a tree to live," Colella said. "Next to the street, with the salt, it’s hot, there’s possible soil compaction, on the other side there’s cement, no water getting through there. It’s a tough life for a street tree."

Early results suggest a preponderance of very young and very old trees, Colella said; for durability’s sake, he’d prefer a broader range. He has counted more than 50 tree species but 40% of the tree stock is maple and much of that is Norway maple.That tree was favored by midcentury developers because it was cheap and fast-growing. It is disfavored by Colella because a monoculture is susceptible to pests and disease.

There is another reason: the state deems the Norway maple invasive because it can crowd native flora out of natural areas. Smithtown, which now plants no maples at all, could take some control measures against Norway maples after the census is complete, Colella said, perhaps removing those that are already cut back because they threaten utility wires. "Have you ever seen trees pruned for wire clearance? " he said. "They're often quite hideous," split like a V or hacked straight across the crown. "It looks better to have tree communities appropriate for their space."

When the census is done, Colella said, the town may use it to identify areas that have few trees or empty space where new trees can be planted. Residents occasionally object to plans for new trees in front of their homes, Colella said. In these cases he draws on a tidy arsenal of arguments: trees cool the air they shade and filter dust, and studies show they may also grow a home’s property value by double digits.

The financial argument is potent, he said. He nodded to the grand bowering corridor of London planes, 60 feet overhead and a quarter mile long.

"If I was a Realtor, I’d want to show that picture," he said.

The Big 5

The most common Smithtown street trees are:

Maple 43%

Cherry 11%

Pear 10%

Plane 9%

Oak 6%

Source: Smithtown Department of Environment and Waterways

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