Cutting trees raises wrath

Neighbors in a stew over New York couple's clearing of yard

March 25, 2002|By Barbara Stewart | Barbara Stewart,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Last November, Mark and Kim Campisano, newcomers to Benedict Place in Pelham, chopped down six towering trees and 10 or 15 smaller ones in their yard.

To them, it was a practical measure - and their own private business.

"It's our property," Kim Campisano said. "We're doing what's suitable for us. We want a yard where the boys can play baseball."

But the neighbors saw it as wanton destruction that damaged the neighborhood's beauty. They were appalled that anybody would cut down 100-foot-high, 150-year-old trees as casually as one might redesign a living room.

"It's very disrespectful of life," said Richard Heller, a landscape designer who lives near the Campisanos. "I don't think anybody should remove old-growth trees, especially if they're older than you are."

The shock is still reverberating in the tiny neighborhood. Benedict Place is a quiet cul-de-sac, dense with trees that are taller and older than the 15 or so houses that were built roughly between 1915 and 1930. Several homeowners are transplants from New York City, where every tree is zealously protected. They were astonished to learn that Pelham had no rules that protected old-growth trees on private property.

The village, which borders the Bronx, is "very, very wooded," said Mia Homan, a village trustee. The houses are close together and the lots are small. "But people have great trees in their front yards," she said.

`We wanted a yard'

The cluster of felled trees was "a lovely little patch of forest," Kim Campisano said. "But we didn't want a forest. We wanted a yard to play in."

The anger of her neighbors, she said, completely surprised her.

"I would wave `hi' to people and they would turn their faces," she said. "They'd literally stand outside and say `You're ruining the neighborhood' and `Those trees were like my children.' I guess I was a bit naive to think that nobody would complain."

For their part, the neighbors were surprised by what they saw as the insensitivity of the Campisanos, who seemed utterly unable to understand the neighbors' love for the huge trees or the depth of their sadness and loss.

However, the Campisanos agreed to spare two of the tallest trees after neighbors pleaded with them.

Nicholas Lemann, an author who lives next door to the Campisanos, said the lost trees provided privacy and the feeling of living in a forest.

But Heller sees a silver lining. "These folks really woke up. We have several trees here that are 100, 150, 200 years old - and they're very taken for granted here. Now people are saying: `Wow! We're vulnerable.'"

Ordinance urged

Homan, at the urging of Benedict Place residents, said she plans to propose an ordinance requiring a permit to destroy trees of a certain size - starting at somewhere between 8 and 10 inches in diameter and 4 to 5 feet tall.

"We also want to get people to pay attention to great old trees and replace them if they're dying or dead," she said.

Though Westchester County is full of old-growth trees, only half its towns have tree-protection ordinances, and regulations are needed to protect the remaining wooded and open areas, said Edna Sussman, director of the nonprofit Federated Conservationists of Westchester County. A quarter of Westchester's open space was lost to development between 1988 and 1996, she said.

Lemann says that tree-protection legislation is needed to settle conflicts among neighbors. "I do not want this to remain personal," he said.

By all accounts, the heated emotions have cooled.

"What's done is done," Lemann said. "We'll plant more trees. Life will go on."

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