Suburban tree ordinance helps fight off McMansions, preserve “suburban quality of life”

Many suburban residents may not pay much attention to tree ordinances in their community. However, a recent debate about the ordinance in Oyster Bay, New York reveals some interesting motivations for such ordinances:

Amendments to the code of the Town of Oyster Bay were discussed at the Tuesday, Aug. 14, town board meeting. They included regulations pertaining to the growing of bamboo on both residential and commercial property (see article on page 10), storm water management and erosion and sediment control, and the removal of trees on private property…

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto opened the hearing by explaining the town’s decision that the law as stated was burdensome and needed balance. He said, “Trees are probably the most visible symbols of our suburban quality of life.” The supervisor explained the law was intended to protect the tree population but that when it was instituted they didn’t hear the other side of the story. Now the board members are hearing from residents who are saying, “Who are you to come into my backyard and say I can’t remove a tree.” He said homeowners viewed it as a loss of their individual rights and called it “government intrusion.” After listening to many speakers who seemed to understand his views, he said, “It’s a question of balance.” Mr. Venditto said it was the homeowner dealing with trees on their private property that were the ones the repeal of the ordinance would benefit.

Still the possibility of repealing a tree ordinance reminds people of why they wanted one in the first place. Nassau County Legislator Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) was the first to speak. She reminded the audience that, “The initial tree ordinance was passed in 1973 following the total destruction of a 15-acre parcel of land in Woodbury which was bull dozed by a developer, Sidney Kalvar, who was denied an application for zoning on the property.  Hundreds of trees were just leveled and a barren piece of land replaced the natural growth which was there.”

In 2007, an amendment to the town’s 1973 tree ordinance was adopted as a result of the work of Save the Jewel By the Bay which was working to protect the hamlet of Oyster Bay from an onslaught of “McMansions.” The town added to the tree ordinance as well as adopting several zoning ordinances to prevent McMansions; both ordinances were adopted townwide.

Trees clearly have environmental benefits. Yet, they also serve as status symbols. Two things struck me here:

  1. Regulations about trees are tied to fighting McMansions. A common image of the construction of McMansions includes a developer/builder coming in with teams of bulldozers, flattening the landscape, and then mass producing unnecessarily large and ugly houses. Of course, this is not that different of a process from other suburban construction going back to the early days of mass produced housing in places like Levittown. My question: can McMansions be made more acceptable if the developer/builder work more with the existing landscape and retain many of the trees? Put another way, can’t communities simply tell McMansion builders that they must retain or plant a certain number of trees? It doesn’t seem to me that McMansions and trees necessarily have to be antithetical to each other.
  2. Trees denote a “suburban quality of life.” Suburban streets are often depicted with broad, leafy trees spanning over the roadway. I recall reading how the creators of The Wonder Years wanted this sort of suburban image and found it in Culver City, California. Yet, one can find this is many urban neighborhoods. So perhaps it is more about the number of trees. Urban streetscapes are often limited to having trees in the space between the sidewalk and street and sidewalk and building. Or, perhaps it is about trees plus a little green space around the trees which is also tougher to find in cities. I wonder how much having older and/or more trees on a property increases the property value of suburban homes. Neighborhoods with few or shorter trees tends to indicate that the neighborhood is newer but is there a price reduction because of this? How much of the character of an older neighborhood is tied to the trees? Is having plenty of older trees an indication of the community being older and monied?

A final note: the article mentions that two residents say that in order to be known as a “Tree City USA” community, a municipality must have a tree ordinance on the books. I was not aware of this and have wondered what it took to get such a designation and sign along the roadway.

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  1. Ted says:

    Good points, Brian. Distinctions as to the types of trees planted are very important as well. I’ve seen dismally poor choices by developers time and time again in their attempt to force the impression of an “established” appearance for their McMansion subdivisions. Their heinous overuse of non-native, fast-growing softwoods and flowering ornamentals is a dead giveaway.

    Proper soil preparation is seldom done, so these hapless trees must struggle to survive in very poor soils “amended” with various construction debris until their untimely deaths. Of course, the developer tries his best to make it attractive as evidenced by his overuse of another ubiquitous landscaping material — pine bark mulch — by the kilotonne! Worse yet is the artificially dyed RED mulch, yet it somehow seems appropriate around garish McMansions.

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