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Scott Brinton

The inherent right of trees to exist


It was around 8 a.m. on a Saturday, if I remember correctly. The chainsaw revved, then wailed, as it tore into the old oak tree in the far corner of my neighbor’s yard. First, this fine specimen’s long branches were felled. Then its wide trunk was split in half. Finally, the lower torso was cut down, leaving only a stump.
It was a vibrant oak that had stood for half a century or more, by my estimation — oaks grow about a foot a year, and this one was roughly 50 feet tall. But there it was, this mighty tree, dead and gone in a matter of hours.
My neighbor, who sold and moved shortly afterward, had already removed all of the other trees and bushes in his backyard, leaving only a grassy plain measuring 1/32 of an acre. The oak was the tallest and most majestic of the lot.
I’m an ardent dendrophile — lover of trees — and my stomach was knotted as I listened to the oak come down section by section, as if dying a slow death by a hundred stab wounds. This was more than a decade ago; I forget the precise year. But I remember the bright sun and the whine of the chainsaw.
If only the Town of Hempstead, where I live, had had in place the local law that the Village of Valley Stream board of trustees enacted on Oct. 21. Previously, village residents could do pretty much whatever they wanted to the trees on their lots. Under the new law, they must now obtain a village permit in order to take down a tree, which can only be removed if it’s necessary — that is, if it’s dead or diseased, or poses a threat to life or property. Otherwise, if the village deems its removal unwarranted, it must stay. The penalty for felling a tree without permission is a $250 fine or 15 days in jail.

Bravo, Valley Stream! You took an important step toward not only preserving the suburban nature of Nassau County, but also leading in the ongoing climate crisis. Trees suck carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, from the air and replace it with oxygen.
Alas, as much as it pains me to say it, the village did not take the law far enough. The 15 days of jail time might make a resident think twice about removing a tree, but a $250 fine will deter relatively few.
If you’re looking to do the law right, check out what Baxter Estates did. A shoreline community on the northeast side of Manhasset Bay, it’s among Nassau’s tiniest villages, with only 14 short streets and two small parks. In the mid-2000s, it was having trouble controlling builders, who were cutting down any number of stately trees on private property, despite a prohibition against doing so, according to “Ordinances to protect trees on private property,” published on the Nassau County Bar Association website. So Baxter Estates, which reminds me of the bucolic little communities that dot the Hudson River Valley, upped the fine for illegally removing a tree from a private property to $5,000 per tree.
Yes, $5,000 per tree!
The ordinance made a bold statement that trees add value not only to the lives of the people who “own” them, but also to the surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, it made a statement that trees are living creatures, with inherent worth, and so deserve special protection under the law.
Not to be outdone, the nearby Village of Plandome, on the southeast side of Manhasset Bay, passed an ordinance in 2017 prohibiting residents from removing more than two trees larger than 10 inches in diameter on private property without permission — with a $25,000 fine for violators — according to Newsday. Now we’re talking!
In 1973, the Town of Oyster Bay was the first municipality on Long Island to enact legislation to protect trees on public property, according to the bar association. Then, in 2007, it expanded the law to include trees on private property. According to town code, violators face fines of $350 to $1,000 or 15 days in jail. Oyster Bay could certainly look to Plandome and Baxter Estates for guidance in upgrading its ordinance, but its law is far stronger than Hempstead’s.
Hempstead prohibits the removal of any tree in the grassy median between your sidewalk and the curb without permission, according to town code, but on your own property, you’re free to cut and chop at will. That’s a terrible shame.
Every Long Island municipality should be doing all it can to protect and preserve the remaining trees that we have. They’re our inheritance, passed down to us from the generations who came before. We have no right to fell them just because we want to.
Municipalities should be doing more than that, though — they should be actively encouraging the continual planting of new trees as an inheritance that we can pass on to our own children and grandchildren.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.