Chopping Down a Tree

Dan interviewing the Southampton tree
Dan interviewing the Southampton tree

As you drive through the woods along narrow roads in the Hamptons, you sometimes see rectangular parcels of recently cleared foliage where everything, including the tallest and oldest trees, has been piled up into mounds along the sides of the parcel awaiting the arrival of trucks to haul it all away. A future home will arise on all this scraped-clean property. And all this waste is just in the way.

It is a jarring sight, almost criminal to see. Sometimes dozens of tree stumps remain, tombstones in a vegetation graveyard. They are awaiting the stump removal people.

Are people breaking the law doing this? Are the towns and villages out here protecting this natural vegetation and the creatures living in it? Are there fines to be paid or new trees to be planted in place of those they chopped down?

Well, some have laws that do that and some don’t. Turns out it depends on which jurisdiction you are in.

At the end of this article I will give a summary of the laws in these different communities. But in this article, I will compare East Hampton Town and Southampton Town, the two biggest incorporated entities on the East End. I have just learned that East Hampton has restrictions, and has had them for years. Southampton Town, which lies adjacent, separated from East Hampton by a white line down the center of Town Line Road, has no restrictions. Never has. Chainsaw away.

As any good reporter would, I decided upon learning of this difference to drive down Town Line Road with a tape recorder to talk to a tree on the Southampton side. How does it feel about this? There is a particular elm I know of about a quarter-mile south of the Montauk Highway on Town Line.

I parked, got a folding chair from the trunk, set it up and sat facing the elm, my back to the road.

“You know you are not protected here,” I said, turning my tape recorder on. “The people with their chainsaws could come any time and do you in.”

“I certainly do know about that,” the elm replied.

“There’s another elm, just across the road, maybe 60 feet away. Safe. How do you feel about that?”

“That’s one of my children,” the tree said. “I have hundreds of children over there in East Hampton. My pollen follows the prevailing winds, which blow from west to east. This one is age 30. I am proud of my many children.”

“Ever think of getting yourself moved to that side of the street? It could be done.”

The tree hesitated to answer, but then agreed to do so, so long as I would not put his name in the paper. I agreed.

“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “But I’m happy just to look at my family across the way. It’s all I need. Nothing more.”

“The landscapers could dig you up, put your roots in a burlap sack with fertilizer, lay you down on a flatbed truck, drive you over, and replant you. It’s such a short way.”

“I know. But look, I’ve lived a long time here. I’m not going to undergo this humiliation.”

“How old are you?”

“92.”

“But you’d be safe on the other side.”

“Are any of us really safe? Even on the safe side? I could live to be 190, or to the day after tomorrow. Things happen. Hurricanes. Floods. Elm blight. There’s no guarantee.”

“If I were you, I think I’d do anything to live a full life,” I said.

“How old are you?” the tree asked. “Well, never mind. Most humans live into their 80s. So whatever it is, you don’t have long to go. I’ve seen you folks come and go. And I’m more than 80 now with plenty of time in front of me. If I’m lucky.”

“So you’ll just ride with it.”

“Yes. When my time is up, I’ll be ready. I’ll be meeting my maker.”

“So we have a philosophical difference.”

“Yes, we do. Don’t you believe there is a God?  Someone who made you?”

“If I were you and could move to East Hampton, I’d jump at the chance,” I said.

“If God wants that I meet him, they can cut me down and count my rings, that’s okay. I’ve followed the Ten Commandments. It’s a life well lived. What’s so great about East Hampton anyway? Some of my kids, and they have kids, say it’s not the best place anyway. They’d rather be with me.”

“What do you tell them?”

“I tell them the grass is always greener on the other side.”

“This interview isn’t getting us anywhere.”

“Well, look up.”

“God is in his heaven?”

“Not that far up. Up in my branches. I’ve got squirrels and beetles, butterflies and bees, birds’ nests, eggs and chicks and snakes that slither in and out. And you want me to consider this big project just to go to East Hampton?”

“Just looking for a story.”

“You want me to form committees, have everybody, squirrels, snakes, everybody, vote on whether to move or not. I think not.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s a great responsibility, what I do.”

And that was the end of the interview.

East Hampton has had a Vegetation Protection Ordinance in place since 2004. It gives maximum tree removal allowances for different size properties. A lot under 11,000 square feet — a quarter-acre — gets a greater percentage that can be cleared than a lot of 250,000 square feet. No parcel can clear more than 30,000 square feet without showing a special need. In North Haven, lots up to 15,000 square feet may clear 85% of a parcel. Bigger only gets to clear 65%. Westhampton Beach forbids the removal of any tree from any property bigger than a half-acre without getting approval that shows need. Southampton Village has laws protecting trees on public property but not private property.

Note where you want to build. Learn the rules in that community when thinking about taking down trees. You can avoid a fine and an order to replant if you do go by the rules.

And of course, consult your trees.

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