Clearcutting trees for views in Woodstock: Town officials blame ambiguous law

Woodstock clearcutting (Photo by Michael Veitch)

Complaints about clearcutting on Olderbark Mountain and other locations in Woodstock have sparked frustration among Planning Board members about a lack of teeth in current Scenic Overlay District regulations and discussions about how to handle pending and future cases.

“We have dedicated a workshop to dealing with the issues in the scenic overlay because there seems to be a matter of interpreting the code and how to deal with it,” Planning Board Chair Peter Cross said before a reopened public hearing was scheduled for a future date for a special use permit for 132 Valley View Way. Nearby residents have complained a gash of trees were cut and the activity will spoil the viewshed.

“So the ZEO (zoning enforcement officer), the building inspector, went to the site and made a determination that there was no clear cutting. The planning board went to the site and did a site visit and determined there was no clear cutting,” Cross said. “There was, however, trimming of trees. It’s not in the code that you can’t trim trees. Not a great idea, but I don’t see in the code where it’s against the law.”

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Cross noted the cutting had already been done by the time it came before the Planning Board. Now, members of the Town Board and various committees have asked what can be done to make up for the fact the owner topped some trees. “Well, the problem is we have [had] before several other cases in the scenic overlay where the site has been completely cleared,” Cross said. “And we have one site which people have gone to see, which is the one at Raycliff and we have one at Day Road. So the question is, those sites have been completely cleared. What do you do when it’s already done, and you can’t have somebody plant a 30-foot tree, because we’ve been down that route.”

One part of the Scenic Overlay law says to keep tree cutting to a minimum. “Who’s going to determine the minimum,” Cross asked.

Another part of the law prohibits building on a prominent ledge. “These other two cases before us are on prominent ledges,” Cross said. “So we’re kind of looking to find a way to apply the scenic overlay code evenly across the board. And so that’s the issue,” he said, noting the reason behind a December 16 meeting to discuss the law.

Planning Board has little authority in these cases

“Peter, you’re talking about two other sites that are considerably worse in the way that they were handled, and we don’t have enforcement authority,” Planning Board member Judith Kerman said. “We don’t have the ability…if there was something in the town law and I don’t think there is…to do more than say you have to mitigate. I don’t know how the other two properties could mitigate…“We need stricter and clearer rules for the future, but we also have to have a way that if somebody buys a piece of property, and does stuff to it before they ever come to us, or even the building department, there are some consequences.”

Planning Board member Brian Normoyle agreed with Kerman. “What is frustrating to me, and this is probably no surprise, I’m just sick of these impotent laws that we have or regulations, because we have these circular conversations where we can’t do anything,” Normoyle said. “Everybody knows there’s trimming and there’s topping, and topping is only done for one reason, in my opinion. That’s for views. I personally think that it should be prohibited. What I think and what we can enforce are two different things…I wonder how the forests managed themselves before humans started doing it, and the answer is a hell of a lot better than humans, and so then we have this issue.”

Planning Board member Conor Wenk said he is working with Councilwoman Laura Ricci on the Zoning Revision Committee to bring fines for violations up to current levels. “They haven’t been raised, I think, since ’89 or something like that. So even just accounting for inflation would make a substantial difference,” Wenk said. “All I can say is I agree, and if we can find a way to get in front of it, or at least make it less attractive. What the conversation we’ve had before is, for too many people, it’s really just the price of admission. It’s not a barrier to entry.” 

Planning Board Vice Chair Stuart Lipkind also seemed to agree. “I think there’s a weakness in the present law. It’s been pointed out that the law says one of the standards of this of the scenic overlay is that tree cutting is supposed to be minimized. One person may think that X amount of cutting is minimal, and another person may think that Y is. There’s just really no standard in there and that’s a weakness in the code as it presently exists,” he added. “And so you have an owner here, who took it upon themselves to thin out some of the top areas of the trees, and without it being plainly illegal…You look at the code. How’s a judge going to say what’s minimizing and what’s not… and so it seems to me if that’s the state of this particular law, I don’t know how it’s really enforceable,” Lipkind added. “And even the building department went out there and looked at it and found no violation, and yet, members of the community have come in and proclaimed to the Planning Board that well, what are we going to do about these violations. But there are no violations. No one has ever issued a violation for this condition on this particular parcel.”

Law can be better written

“There’s better ways to do it,” Cross said. “There’s two descriptions of clearcutting. One is by the state, which says any an acre or more clear cut on a certain slope is against the law, and our code says within the building site, if 50 percent of the trees six inches or over are cut, that’s wrong. But now, it doesn’t say the lot. It says the site and it’s 50 trees of over six inches or more. I don’t know how you ever nail that down. I really don’t. But that’s the issue.”

There is one comment

  1. Margaret Smith

    Wait, do I hear this correctly? You can refuse to allow life-saving cell phone service – after all the accidents and medical emergencies that happened on Route 212 above Bearsville, when nobody could call 911 – because of the fantasy of ‘preserving the pristine beauty of the woods’ but you can clear cut the woods anyway? Something not adding up here. Is human life really worth a pretty view?

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