Builders have an arboreal problem

Trees are becoming a pain in the bark for Staten Island builders.

Onerous regulations and pricey fees for removing city-owned trees have made a builder’s job difficult, at best, and impossible, at worst, according to Michael Schaeffer, a principal of Island Engineering Associates and a board member for the Building Industry Association of New York.

But perhaps the biggest challenge builders are facing is the fact that they often have no idea how to estimate the cost of certain development projects because of the lack of coordination from the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation, which is responsible for regulation of city-owned trees, Schaeffer said. Builders often have trouble properly evaluating a piece of property because of the unclear rules and regulations with the trees on it.

“It’s just a cost of doing business that you can’t possibly anticipate,” he said. “You can’t add it. You can’t figure it into the cost of your construction. It’s become a big blight.”

City-owned trees have always been regulated, but zoning regulations changed starting in 2008, altering what could and could not be done. The new zoning required that a street tree be planted for every 25 lineal feet of street frontage on a zoning lot, Schaeffer said. Similar regulations had been in place for special zoning districts in the past, but now, the rules applied for every property.

The big change came in 2010, though, when the city council and parks department established new fees, means and methods for removing existing city-owned street trees. Now, each street tree was assigned a monetary value, which the builder had to pay for removal. In some cases, larger trees are valued at close to $200,000, not counting labor, Schaeffer said.

Further complicating matters, the city handed jurisdiction of street trees to local forestry and horticultural officers, of which Staten Island has two. Schaeffer said there is little-to-no oversight of these officers, though, which causes massive problems when it comes to estimating the cost of tree removal and replacement.

“The rules and the establishment of these fees are not backed up by any nationally-recognized standard,” such as the International Society of Arborists, he said. “Commissioners are basically allowing local foresters to do whatever they please, however they please.”

Because it has become almost impossible to anticipate the value of each street tree, builders are instead trying to keep each tree intact and work around them. That becomes a frustrating process, though, Schaeffer said, because it means having parks department oversight throughout the entire project. Most times, the department won’t inform a builder of whether they are operating according to standards, waiting instead until a project is completed and issuing a restitution fee if a tree has suffered “irreparable” damage, by their standards.

“It’s become a very sore point with a lot of builders,” Schaeffer said. “In most cases, it’s become so expensive that you can’t do business with the city on it, so people are backing away from projects with a large number of trees on it.”

A piece of property on Bryson Avenue is a prime candidate for a development project, but because of the uncertain status of trees on the site, Schaeffer has advised his clients to stay away. And that property is only one example of many throughout the borough.

“In a nutshell, it has become a nightmare to deal with the Parks Department as far as developing goes. We’re just basically throwing shots in the dark,” he said.

The Building Industry Association has created a committee, with Schaeffer as its chair, to ask the Parks Department to create a set of standards that are translucent for builders to implement in the field.

The Association has been unsuccessful in getting a five-borough standard as of yet, Schaeffer said, but his committee has employed the help of two arborists, engineers, an architect and two attorneys to hopefully change that.

“In recent years, each city agency seems to be running off on its own tangent and not consulting with other agencies,” he said.

“They’re all going in different directions with no consultation between the agencies.”

In his 15 years in the field, Schaeffer said it used to be possible to get a joint meeting with various city departments to come to a consensus on an issue. Now, it’s not uncommon for zoning resolutions to conflict with building codes, which sometimes conflict with environmental standards. The problem has only become worse in the post-Sandy era, with FEMA and other agencies changing regulations to uphold what they think is best for the environment going forward.

“These days, you can’t get them all in the same room, let alone get them to agree on something,” he said.

Schaeffer said the Building Industry Association’s new committee will focus heavily on public outreach during its plight, because a lot of private property owners are being misled.

People who think they have a proper means of retirement or income may soon find out that they don’t have the valuable property they thought they once had — because of city-owned street trees.

“A lot of private homeowners don’t realize what the agencies are doing to them,” Schaeffer said. “In reality, the city as a whole is being hurt in many different ways.”