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Town struggles to keep up with pace of yard waste removal

Tree stumps, branches and logs line the curb

Tree stumps, branches and logs line the curb on Sandpiper Court in Smithtown on May 28. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Smithtown residents — working from home, not working, maybe just bored — turned to yard cleanup this spring with a vehemence that surprised and dismayed the town workers who struggled to keep pace with the volume of brush and leaves they left curbside.

“We were inundated,” said highway Superintendent Robert Murphy, whose crews handle pickup. In April and most of May, workers collected and processed at least 2,934 tons of brush, a 64% increase over the same period last year, and 3,342 tons of leaves, a 45% increase. The highway department was near half-strength during much of that time because of New York State workforce restrictions, and Murphy said there were some weeks when he deployed most of his workers on the leaf and brush beat. 

Smithtown is one of a few Long Island municipalities to offer that service, town officials said. But workers have also had to remove, almost daily, streetside piles of chopped up tree trunks, branches and stumps left by what officials said are fly-by-night tree removal companies who should be taking the material themselves. That is not part of the highway department’s remit and it is a problem because when crews take time and trucks to remove a pile they are diverting from other, equally important work, Murphy said. 

“It’s causing major service disruptions for other residents — they pay their taxes too and have every right to brand new sidewalks and clean roads,” said town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo, who said she saw one pile so vast “it looked like they took down an entire forest.” Officials are contemplating legislation that would impose a $500 fine on companies that don’t do their own cleanup, she said.

Town code requires a permit to remove trees, but much residentially zoned land is exempted. 

Mike Engelmann, Smithtown’s solid waste coordinator, whose crews mulch much of the debris — returning 50 tons of the stuff free to residents annually — said the town was not equipped to process some of the material. “Stumps are problematic — there’s soil attached to them, they’re too large to go through horizontal grinding equipment,” he said. Heavy logs and trunks also require time-consuming effort “sawing them down to size. It puts heavy wear on the equipment.” 

Frank Prisco, owner of Smithtown-based Reliable Tree Service, a company that does private work and municipal contracting with towns, including Smithtown, said some of the companies were likely trying to avoid disposal costs that can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars, with prices driven partly by scarcity of space at processing facilities this year.  

Prisco said changes to state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations “cut in half” the volume of material a recycling yard can hold. A DEC spokesman said the agency in 2017 changed its rules for pile size and property setbacks but “is not aware of the regulatory changes causing any systemic storage capacity shortages or resulting increase in prices in the Smithtown area, or Long Islandwide.”

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Some companies — “weekend warriors who don’t have any equipment” — may save their customers money by leaving debris at the curbside, but taxpayers ultimately get stuck with the bill, Prisco said. 

“Tax money should be spent on roads, sidewalks and curbs, [beautifying the rights of way], not being a carting company for tree companies that should be handling their own stuff."

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