Discussion Of Tree Clearing Regs Takes Root In Southampton

A huge swatch of denuded land in Hampton Bays, legally cleared, was cited as a property that 'falls through the cracks' because the town lacks adequate clearing regulations. DANA SHAW

When it comes to their benefit to the environment, to wildlife habitat and their role in the picturesque character of Southampton’s bucolic landscape, “all trees matter,” Town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer told the Southampton Town Board.

However, she reported, “There’s been a lot of consternation lately, especially in the post COVID influx, a lot of vegetation clearing going on and a lot of upset people.”

At the board’s August 26 work session, the administrator spoke of a community member caring for a dying parent at home “and the chainsaws were going.” At other times, a homeowner may have an event planned, “and then there’s these chainsaws.”

At one site in particular, a property owner merged lots and clear cut some 7 acres of mature woodland in Hampton Bays, with tractors and bulldozers actually creating dust storms, Ms. Scherer said. That activity generated a lot of calls to her office, she added.

But it was all perfectly legal.

Outside Aquifer Protection Overlay Districts, the Town of Southampton doesn’t currently regulate the removal of trees from private property. Ms. Scherer, accompanied by the town’s senior environmental analyst, Marty Shea, appeared before the board to broach the notion of crafting standards for clearing properties and removing trees. A property like the 7-acre tract in Hampton Bays “falls through the cracks,” Mr. Shea pointed out.

Mr. Shea reported researching other municipalities to understand what they have on the books. In East Hampton, clearing regulations relate to the size of particular lots. Adopted in 2004, the “Vegetation Protection Ordinance” applies townwide. It created a formula that relates the percentage of property that may be cleared to the size of a residential lot. Under 10,999 square feet, the whole lot may be cleared. No more than 80,000 square feet could be cleared on any lot, unless it’s greater than 300,000 square feet. In order to receive a certificate of occupancy, a property’s survey would have to show clearing limits — and if a landowner exceeded the clearing limits, he or she have to revegetate in accordance with a plan devised by the Natural Resources Department. Mr. Shea noted that, in addition, certain harbor overlay districts have regulations that are more stringent.

In Brookhaven Town, he continued, outside the central Pine Barrens, there is a tree preservation ordinance with a provision for landmarking “heritage” trees.

According to Mr. Shea, members of the town’s land use department will meet with and help residents who have questions about clearing on their properties. When he takes the time to meet with the landowner, it makes a difference, Mr. Shea said. But, he made clear, “I’m going out there without any regulation in hand.”

While the discussion didn’t delve into many specifics, Ms. Scherer spoke of neighbor notification and how the lack of it has been upsetting residents. She also spoke of some way of getting building inspectors to mark off trees that should be protected, since, “It’s always the story with ‘nobody told the guy with the bulldozer.’”

“We clearly need something,” Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni offered. Excessive clearing can throw off the ecosystem, he said. Officials want to make sure that whatever they craft is simple, clear, and easy to understand, Mr. Shea said. And while certain areas, like Shinnecock Hills, are outside the Aquifer Protection Overlay District, there really are not any areas in town that aren’t critical for protecting the bay watershed, he said.

Many local villages have standards for vegetation protection, Councilman Schiavoni pointed out. The Village of North Haven recently passed clearing regulations, but it was not easy.

In June, a split vote occurred in North Haven, following public hearings held in April and May. The new code increases the area that can be cleared of natural vegetation by lot size, with smaller lots allowed to clear greater percentages. For example lots up to 15,000 square feet may clear 85 percent of the parcel, compared to the precious allowance of 65 percent. Bigger properties can also clear greater percentages of the land.

Southampton Village officials took a pass at crafting a section of its zoning code. They stopped short of moving ahead with rules for private properties beyond care and removal of infected trees, however. The village code chapter on trees speaks simply to protection of trees on village property. A provision that called for property owners to obtain a permit to remove or even replace a tree drew opposition at public hearings in 2019 and never made it to the finished code revision.

The Village of Westhampton Beach adopted its “Trees” chapter in 1987. It forbids the removal of any tree from any property bigger than a half-acre without the landowner first obtaining a permit to do so. The Planning Board is in charge of reviewing tree removal permits.

“Any person who destroys or removes any tree without having first obtained a permit issued therefor pursuant to this chapter or who destroys or removes any tree in a manner inconsistent with such permit or the requirements of an approved subdivision or site plan shall be guilty of a violation punishable by a fine of not less than $250,” the code states.