by Mike Hays
The chainsaws worked overtime as workers removed 22 towering, 90-year-old linden trees along N. Broadway in front of the Summit School in Upper Nyack last week. The nearly 2,000 cumulative tree-years were the subject of intense local debate in the village. Concerned villagers packed a planning board meeting in July to voice their opinions about the proposed removal of the iconic row of trees. The village debate and the story of the doomed trees is one where fear, risk, and liability collide with history, aesthetics, and the environment.
What exactly is a Linden tree?
Linden trees are native to Western Europe and Eastern Asia. Lindens are the national tree of the Czech and Slovak Republics, where they were once considered to be sacred “lime trees.” They tolerate cold temperatures, partial shade, and atmospheric pollution. Their flowers attract bees in the spring and are used for tea in France. There are no known serious diseases or pests associated with them. The wood is firm but fairly soft so it is popular in carving. The tree requires a lot of maintenance and is fairly messy. It is also susceptible to damage from street salt and wind. In ideal conditions, the life span of lindens can be many hundreds of years.
Who planted the Linden Trees?
Justin DuPratt White accumulated ten acres of riverfront property in 1900 that extended from the Old Stone Church to Castle Heights Avenue. White, a Nyack native who became a successful New York City lawyer and Cornell University trustee, was instrumental in the formation of the Harriman State Park Commission, serving as one of the first commissioners of the Palisades Interstate Park. He piloted the acquisition of the Upper Nyack Quarry for the Palisades Park Commission in 1911 that preserved Hook Mountain from further mining and development.
In 1927, White completed a large Tudor-style mansion complete with stables, greenhouse, and spring-fed pool. The estate was named Miramare. “Mira” is Spanish for “look at” and “mare” is Italian for “the sea.” Mirimare is thus named because of the wide views of the Hudson River and Tappan Zee and also as a tribute to the Italian heritage of White’s wife, Anita Lombard Bradley. Both served on the Village Board of Upper Nyack. They participated in the founding of Nyack Hospital and the Rockland County Historical Society. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.
As a part of the landscaping of the property, 30+ linden trees were planted equidistantly from each other in a row to form a one-sided allee along the Broadway side of a stone wall fronting the estate. At the time, the Nyack Country Club was across the street where the elementary school is now located. It is estimated that the trees are about 90 years old.
Nyack Boys School and The Summit School
After the death of White, Jack Karkas founded the Nyack Boys School in 1934. The military-style academy graduated men who went on to success in many fields including Michael Norman who was a renowned journalist for the New York Times, book author, and now professor at the NYU School of Journalism. Eventually, the school fell on hard times from lack of funding amid the decline of interest in military-style schools in the late 1960s. It closed on February 1, 1972.
The mansion and cottages were vacant for two years, targets for vandals and thieves who ravaged the place. In 1974, it became the home of the Summit School for middle and high school students with socio-emotional difficulties. The Summit School, a residential and therapeutic center for children with behavioral and emotional problems, now accepts both residential and day students and is co-ed. Many of the buildings retain the character of the original White estate with their Tudor ambience.
Upper Nyack Planning Board Meeting on Linden Trees
Once upon a time, Upper Nyack was a farm landscape with fields and fruit trees and fewer trees than now. But in the contemporary residential village, trees are part of the fabric that attracts residents. It’s hard to think of Upper Nyack without trees, even though we have experienced monstrous storms in the last decade that have brought destruction to many trees along with downed power lines. Two linden trees went down during the March 2018 Nor’easter, one near the entrance of Summit School and one at the corner of Broadway and Castle Heights.
The July 18, 2018 Upper Nyack Planning Board meeting was packed. On the agenda was Summit School’s request to remove all 22 of the linden trees fronting its property along Broadway. Most citizens spoke out in favor of tree retention, many focused on the decision-making process. Much attention was given to the fact that the building inspector had already issued a permit for removal of ten high-risk trees in front of Summit School. Some wondered how the normal procedure for tree removal had been subverted. Others expressed their shock at the knowledge that beloved trees along sidewalks that are popular walking environments for villagers of all ages would disappear.
The planning board requested that an independent Level II assessment of the trees be made by a certified arborist before they proceeded to remove any trees. (A Level I assessment is visual, Level II looks at roots and the tree core.) Ultimately, the board ruled that the village would hire an independent arborist to review the recommendations of the arborist hired by Summit, and that the whole issue would be the first item of the next planning board meeting on September 26.
The Arborist’s Report
Angelo Schembari III, an ISA Certified arborist, was hired by Summit School and made the Level II assessment of each tree. Schembari rated 12 trees “high risk” and ten trees “moderate risk” of failure within the next two years. The assessment took into consideration the amount of foot and vehicular traffic as well as the density of cars parked in front of the trees, especially during school sessions.
Schembari found root and trunk damage in some trees. Since the adjacent sidewalks were not marred by root growth, he hypothesized that their roots may have been cut when the sidewalks were rebuilt. All the trees were therefore unstable. It’s possible his hypothesis was incorrect. Win Perry, Upper Nyack historian noted that the sidewalks might be original to the planting. Further, root growth has not seemed to affect the stone wall behind them.
He also noted the lopsided tree pruning to a height of 50 feet to clear power lines that run on that side of the street. Pruning wounds would not able to be remediated within the two-year period.
The village attorney, assistant mayor, and the building inspector met to discuss the report and concluded that the potential liability to the village meant that that they should issue a permit for the tree removal immediately. The promised evaluation of the arborist’s report was never completed nor was a future planning board meeting discussion with citizens. The decision was final. Ironically, permits were issued for the linden tree removal at the same time the village was busy developing the old Sheep Farm as public “arboretum-style” park.
No time was wasted; trees and stumps were removed in four working days. Kids boarded school buses while towering linden tops were lifted by crane across the street. A mother of an elementary school student mentioned that her child was now worried about whether trees would fall down.
Now, instead of a discussion of proposed tree removal the agenda for the September 26 Planning Board features a presentation of Summit’s landscaping plan. Tree removal may be a minor issue in the grander scheme, but brought to the fore is the uncertain divide between liability and environment, fear and preservation.
“They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum,
And they charged all the people
A dollar and half just to see ‘em.
Don’t it always seems to go
That you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.”
“Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell
See also: Tree Falls Before School Opens, Killing 80 Year Old Upper Nyack Retiree, 5/19/2017
Photo credits: Mikeala Martin, MM Photohouse
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.