Guilderland intends to educate with new law to protect native trees

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Sun glints on branches outlined with snow Monday as the massive old tree on Halfmoon Drive dwarves other trees — and houses — in the Windmill Estates development.

GUILDERLAND — This suburban town now has a law to protect native trees.
The town board, after continuing a September public hearing, to make some changes to the proposed law, adopted the revised bill on Dec. 6 with a unanimous vote.

A Tree Preservation Committee will be formed to come up with guidelines on appropriate plants for the town’s parks and rights-of-way along roads, which may also be used as a guide by residents.

Supervisor Peter Barber noted the changes in the law that had been made since the September public hearing.  Originally, the bill had prohibited clear-cutting of 10,000 or more square feet unless that was part of an approved permit or site plan.

Most objections in September were about that restriction. The bill was changed to prohibit clear-cutting of one acre or more unless that was part of an approved permit or site plan — or sustainable forestry practice.

Councilman Jacob Crawford explained that a sustainable forestry plan might, for example, allow thinning of trees in a too-dense forest.

“Working with a logging company or forester, you can develop a sustainable forestry plan for how you take trees over time,” said Crawford, citing the example of someone who heated with a wood stove. “They could take more than an acre because that would be part of a sustainable forestry practice.”

“The planting of native trees and appropriate landscaping in sufficient amounts and proper locations helps promote the health and welfare of a community, and contributes to the environment’s biodiversity,” says the new law. “These plantings also provide shade, improve air quality, and reduce noise and light infiltration, and help with storm water management, prevent erosion and flooding, and provide critical protection and habitat for wildlife.” 

Just three people spoke at the Dec. 6 public hearing: a resident who helped draft the law, a developer who opposed portions of the law, and another resident who made additional recommendations for the law.

“This is all about what we can do as citizens and what we can do then in a greater sense as a community of Guilderland to try to improve the situation for the Earth for future generations,” said Laura Barry who helped draft the law.

It will help sustain native insects, birds, and animals, Barry said, and urged people to read Douglas Tallamy’s book, “Bringing Nature Home.”

“If you care and you’re curious and you want to plant better things, plant one shrub, one tree, one grass, one flower, something in your yard to help the native species survive,” Barry urged.

Developer Angelo Serafini dominated the hearing, speaking for over half an hour. 

He questioned why a developer would be responsible for tree-cutting that had been done earlier on lots in a development or on a series of lots, over time, each less than an acre.

Town planner Kenneth Kovalchik, citing new guidance from the state’s Department of Conservation, said, “It’s important for everybody to understand that, if you’re cutting trees now, prior to an official application being submitted, and then you file that application a few months later, we can go back and look at the area you disturbed.”

“I’m trying to protect the property rights of individuals in the community who know nothing about this,” Serafini asserted.

“If somebody wants to cut down trees around their house, the town doesn’t care,” Barber responded.

Serafini also questioned part of the law that says no one, other than the highway superintendent, the parks director, or their designees, shall cable or brace, trim, cut above ground or below ground or otherwise disturb any heritage tree or public tree without first obtaining a permit.

“Why should that encompass private property?” asked Serafini.

Barber said that there are very few heritage trees in town, citing one in Windmill Estates. When that subdivision was approved, Barber recalled, “Everybody said, ‘Wow, that’s a tree we’ve got to keep.’” Hence, land was set aside to protect it.

The planning board at the time, based on community input, set aside a buffer zone around the tree as part of the Windmill Estates subdivision process, Kovalchik said.

“If you drive there, you’ll see it stands out,” said Barber. “It’s magnificent.”

Serafini also said that the Conservation Advisory Council, already in place, should oversee the law rather than setting up a new committee, which he called redundant. “Why spend money forming another committee?” he asked.

Barber answered that the Conservation Advisory Council gets involved only with subdivisions and added that the positions are unpaid anyway.

Serafini concluded with an objection he had raised in September, criticizing the Pine Bush Preserve for maintaining a globally rare pine barrens.

“The Pine Bush Commission is cutting every tree on their property ….,” he said. “I’m a private person, private citizen. They’re in here telling me what trees I got to plant. They’re in your law. Why is that fair?”

The next speaker, Guilderland resident Elizabeth Floyd Mair, a former Enterprise reporter, explained that trees are cut down on preserve property because “it’s meant to be a pine barrens, which is a very unusual and valuable type of forest …. They are protecting the environment by cutting down those trees.”

She went on to suggest a nomination process so that residents throughout town could suggest trees that might warrant heritage protection.

Barber termed that “a good idea” and said the tree committee, which will come up with a forestry plan for the town, may incorporate that.

Floyd Mair went on to say that preserving trees and replacing them are not equivalent since newly planted trees lack the value of mature trees “in what they do for the landscape and also what they do for the environment.”

She wondered if developers could be encouraged, when looking at a building site, to build around trees rather than “first clear-cut the whole thing and then figure out what to do later.”

“The planning board already does that,” said Barber.

Finally, Floyd Mair asked about the status of the large undeveloped area along Route 20 west of the YMCA.

Kovalchik responded that the most recent developer for the property “more or less walked away from the project” because of improvements that the state’s Department of Transportation would have required.

Of the roughly 50 acres, Kovalchik said, the project would have had 200 apartment units and 15,000 or 20,000 square feet of commercial space.

“But there was roughly 30 acres of that site that was going to be preserved as open space,” said Kovalchik, noting that there are remnant dunes and pitch pine trees there, which is rare on the north side of Route 20.

Floyd Mair asked if there would be a “vast change” in the only remaining forest “right smack in the middle of town.”

Kovalchik said the 30 acres of greenspace would not be lawn but rather what is currently on site. The bulk of the development, he said, was proposed for previously disturbed land, which has a lot of invasive species like locust trees.

At the close of the hearing, Barber said the proposal could be improved but he wanted to “get the ball rolling,” getting the Tree Preservation Committee appointed and developing a master list.

The goal of the law, he said, is “more educational than permit-driven.”

Councilwoman Amanda Beedle suggested posting a list of heritage trees, once developed, on the town’s website along with suggested species for planting. “It is an educational process,” she said.

Councilwoman Chritine Napierski said of the law, “It’s something we can do on the local level to address the climate crisis.” While the law may not be perfect, Napierski said, it’s an important step forward and can be modified.

Councilwoman Rosemary Centi thanked Laura Barry and said how much she had learned from a seminar Barry gave on native trees and invasive trees.

“When I went home, I wanted to cut down every burning bush around my house,” she said.

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