Pine Beetles Damage More Than Trees, Suit Argues

Trees that were cut down two years ago because they had been infested with southern pine beetles remain at 185 Swamp Road in Northwest Woods, East Hampton, prompting the owner to file suit claiming her property has been devalued. Stephen J. Kotz photos

Two years after East Hampton Town found itself confronting a plague in the form of the southern pine beetle, a small insect that had an oversized appetite for the kind of pitch pines found in many of the town’s forests, there is some good news to report.

Andrew Gaites, the principal environmental analyst with the town’s Department of Land Aquisition and Management, said the number of trees on public land found to be infected by the pine beetles has dropped significantly.

“We had to cut down fewer than 100 trees this year,” he said. “We were looking at numbers in the thousands the past few years.”

What’s not to like?

Plenty, according to a resident of Swamp Road —the epicenter of the beetle infestation — who has filed suit, claiming the town has refused to allow her to remove downed trees from her property, thus devaluing it by $1 million.

Eileen Danneman, who lives at 181 Swamp Road, is represented by Hauppauge attorney Stephen Silberling. In a suit filed in state Supreme Court in Riverhead, he argues East Hampton Town came to Ms. Danneman in 2017 requesting permission to cut down pitch pines on 185 Swamp Road, a vacant parcel she owns next to her home that is restricted by a scenic easement. As part of an agreement the two parties reached, Ms. Danneman agreed to remove the trees at her own expense, he said.

“Now the town has taken the position they own the property and have the right to forbid her from cleaning up the mess,” he said.

A couple weeks ago, Mr. Silberling said the town’s attorney in this case, Mark Radi of the Carle Place law firm, Sokoloff Stern LLP, in a bid to settle the case, belatedly offered to let Ms. Danneman remove the dozens of trees that now lie on the property.

The problem, he said, is that a neighbor, Joseph Cornetta, who had agreed to foot the bill to remove them, has since moved away.

“Back in 2017 if they had just done what they promised her and her neighbor, they could have cleared the trees and she would have sold her property for $1 million more,” he said.

Mr. Radi, in a brief phone interview last week, refused to discuss the particulars of the case, but said it was a “reasonable conclusion” that the town would not have prevented Ms. Danneman from clearing the trees if they were clearly on her property. “There is a dispute about which part of the property the trees are lying on,” he said.

The property is marked with a small sign identifying it as a town nature preserve and urging the public to “please respect this preserve and help maintain its natural condition.”

In papers filed with Justice Martha Luft, Mr. Radi has sought to have the suit dismissed, claiming among other things that it was filed too late, that Ms. Danneman should have filed a notice of claim first, and that it improperly names the town Department of Land Acquisition and Management as a defendant.

Mr. Silberling said both sides would meet with the judge this week to discuss the case. He said he planned to press on. “An easement is an easement is an easement,” he said. “You still own the property.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Gaites was not declaring victory over the pine beetles, which did their worst damage along Swamp Road, Two Holes of Water Road and south of the East Hampton Airport in Wainscott beginning in 2017.

“We have been working toward managing the situation,” he said. “We found far fewer infested trees this year on public land than we have in the last few years.”

The town is continuing to inspect private property for infestations, but the numbers of diseased trees found during those inspections have also declined, he said.

Pine beetles attack trees by getting under the bark and tunneling along the outer layer of wood. The vast majority of trees that are infested die within months.

When it does cut down diseased trees, the town follows the management guidance of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to leave felled trees in the field for the time being. Workers score the bark to open the trees so birds and other predators can eat the beetles and cold weather can kill those that remain.

The town is still waiving dump fees for residents who want to remove felled trees from their property. At the dump, the trees are ground up to prevent further spread of the pests.