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East Hills takes second look at tree laws

Meri Miller stands with her daughters Maya, 6,

Meri Miller stands with her daughters Maya, 6, and Eden, 3, by a downed tree in the yard of her Partridge Drive home in East Hills. (Jan. 18, 2013) Credit: Howard Schnapp

When Meri and Adam Miller sought to remove a tree from their East Hills back yard last summer, the request was denied. The tree was too healthy, the couple was told by the village.

Three months later, superstorm Sandy struck, sending parts of the tree into the bedroom of their 3-year-old daughter. The family was safe, having taken refuge at a relative's that night. But a return trip, according to Meri Miller, revealed a near-miss: "The branches were in her crib."

The Millers' experience, echoing those of other residents, has prompted the village -- and several North Shore ones -- to re-examine its tree laws.

"It was a bad thing," Mayor Michael Koblenz said. "I don't want anyone hurt on my watch."

But among property owners and preservationists, the talks have triggered visceral dialogue. One preservationist has threatened a lawsuit to protect trees.

At a public hearing, said Richard Oberlander, according to a transcript: "You shouldn't have moved to the village if you don't like trees. Go to Brooklyn where you like cement."

Oberlander, 71, a certified arborist who made the comment, said he was frustrated by a backlash against the trees. More should be spent on maintenance, he said, not removal.

"Why would you buy a house that's wooded and has a lot of trees, and cut them down," he said later. "Long Island is tree country."

Koblenz called that idea "absurd" and costly.

Under the current tree law, residents can remove a tree in emergencies; those wider than 5 inches require permits.

The new law would give property owners much broader powers, allowing them, for three months, to remove trees that present a danger, could damage their homes, their neighbor's homes, or nearby power lines.

William Burton, village attorney, said the proposed law reflects "a new fear that exists: that trees can be dangerous."

Koblenz said it is challenging to strike the right balance, especially on the North Shore, where the trees are both treasured and feared. "We don't want people willy-nilly cutting down trees because they don't like where it is."

Last summer, Sea Cliff village let more trees be removed without a permit by raising the minimum width in which a permit was needed to 8 inches, from 6 inches. Mayor Bruce Kennedy said a new law might mean upping that number to a foot, or allowing trees to be cut that are more "prone" to cause damage.

In Munsey Park, tree removals have been made easier, too, Mayor Harry Nicolaides said, describing trees that have reached maturity, or by homes or other "menacing" locations.

Not all villages are reacting to Sandy. In Roslyn Estates, where fines can cost $10,000, mayor Jeffrey Schwartzberg said, residents "have a love affair with trees, and we protect them like our children." The law, waived for three months during Sandy, won't change.

"We live in an area that has a tremendous amount of trees," Meri Miller said. "They have to be more lenient."

With Jennifer Barrios

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