Following the controversial felling of five trees on 48th Avenue near 211th Street in Bayside Hills last month — an act many see as angering arborcide — State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) led a press conference last Thursday to address the issue.
Standing beside the remnants of 30-year-old trees on what is now a much sunnier sidewalk, Avella called the situation “a very significant quality of life issue for the community.”
And for the perpetrators, it could bring a significant fine: $300,000.
The five trees — four ash and one sycamore — along with about 20 other smaller trees and shrubs, were mysteriously chopped down sometime during the week of July 21, it is believed.
The trees fringed the property formerly owned by, and across the street from, the Keil Brothers Garden Center. In May 2013, Keil Brothers sold the part of their property that its garden center occupied to the city, and the land across the street — which the chopped-down trees abutted — to the developer 48 Garden Realty LLC.
Yet, the trees themselves were still on city property.
“If you took a look at this, you might think these were on private property,” Avella said, gesturing at how the stumps were along the inner border of the sidewalk, not closest to the street. “But, the Department of Parks & Recreation has confirmed that they are city trees.”
“When we came out to look at the trees having been cut, we were very upset,” said Susan Seinfeld, district manager of CB 11. “We felt that the new owner of the property should have done their due diligence, [and] known where the property line was.”
She also mentioned that even if they were privately owned, certain zoning laws still require greenery in front of a property. “These trees could have been that greenery,” Seinfeld said.
According to Avella’s office, 48 Garden Realty filed building permits for the construction of eight or nine two-story, two-family homes just a couple of days after the Keil Brothers first reported the greenery as gone.
Avella’s office reached out to the company’s architect. He has not returned the call, while city officials and the NYPD are still investigating the incident, Avella said.
The Parks Department is in talks to fine whoever is at fault around $300,000, based on the amount of greenery illegally removed. They would also be responsible for replanting.
Representatives from Community Board 11, the Bayside Hills Civic Association, the Auburndale Improvement Association, and the office of Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Fresh Meadows) stood alongside Avella and called for justice.
“This should serve as a signal to any developer or builder that you just can’t come into Bayside Hills and do what you want,” said Armando Cortino, vice president of Bayside Hills Civic Association.
Avella mentioned a growing concern that the developer would obtain a permit to construct the homes from the Department of Buildings before paying a fine to the Parks Department; if the two agencies did not work together, this act could essentially go unchecked.
“We shouldn’t allow somebody who did so much damage to the environment to get a permit and then go ahead and build whatever they want while the fine sits there and is not collected by the City of New York,” Avella said.
“This is outrageous that these trees have been removed,” Henry Euler, first vice president of the Auburndale Improvement Association, said. “Whatever the fine is, whatever the punishment is, [it] must be enforced. This has to be made an example of.”
Euler, who held a sign partly reading, “Street trees are important to our health and are public property,” said his group stands alongside Bayside Hills Civic Association on the issue.
“Trees are so important to our environment. Not only do they provide shade and health benefits to people, they also absorb water and avert flooding,” Euler added.
City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) has also spoken out against the arborcide.
“Arborcide is a criminal offense, and I will be working to support the Parks and Police Departments to see that the perpetrators are prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Weprin said recently in a prepared statement.
Last November, the City Council voted to turn the former site of the Keil Brothers Garden Center across the street into a 416-seat elementary school, despite opposition from residents and area elected officials including Avella.
The tree-felling incident, on the heels of the unpopular vote, worries some residents.
Roger Giardino, who lives down the block from the former Keil properties, said he fears adding a school and homes to the busy throughway will be unsafe.
“We are courting disaster,” Giardino said. He recalled the day the City Council voted on constructing the elementary school, and said residents were only told about the meeting mere hours before.
“We’re going to fight this battle and they’re going to ignore us,” he said. “The wheels of justice seem to be well-oiled by the people who can afford it.”
Avella assured residents that he believes the process to officially assess the fine and pinpoint whoever is at fault for felling the trees will unfold quickly.