When a chainsaw whirs into action in Riverdale, seemingly everyone west of the Henry Hudson Parkway hears it.
Riverdale is serious about protecting its Special Natural Areas District, where property owners need approval to cut down trees, alter the topography, or drill into rock outcroppings on the sloping terrain.
But penalties and a stop work order three years ago were not enough to deter Brooklyn-based TL Management from inviting landscapers back onto the 8.4-acre lot it owns and leases to the operator of Schervier Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
Neighbors quickly sent a flurry of complaints when work crews appeared last month and began hacking away at the flora surrounding the facility’s staff parking lot on Independence Avenue and West 231st Street. It’s the same area where crews felled half a dozen mature trees in 2019 before a buildings inspector intervened.
The buildings department, which enforces SNAD regulations, issued a $5,000 summons Sep. 15 for violating the previous stop work order.
Photos and complaints of illegal tree removal will go to the city parks department for further action, buildings liaison Luke Szabados said in an email to CB8.
“I stopped and asked one of the workers why he was chopping down trees,” an unidentified woman told CB8’s land use committee Oct. 3.
“He had a truck full of trees. He replied, ‘no these are just weeds. We’re only chopping down weeds.’ But you could see all the branches in his truck.”
The community board voted last week to significantly up the ante, authorizing land use chair Charles Moerdler to go to city and state health agencies to ask for a probe into Schervier’s licensure.
“When you violate the law with impunity and consistently, you are not a qualified person under the regulations,” said Moerdler.
The Schervier property straddles the edge of the SNAD district designated in 1975 and expanded in the 1980s.
Further restrictions on development were added in 2003 when the city council voted to adopt CB8’s 197-a plan, a detailed guide to regulations and enforcement methods for protecting natural features within the district’s borders.
As a result, patches of woodland and dramatic rock formations still dot the far western edge of Riverdale today.
“There are lots of people who would like to be in SNAD,” said Riverdale Nature Preservancy chair Sherida Paulsen. “A lot of the concerns in Riverdale have to do with the fact that we’re one of the few walkable areas of the city that’s also a natural environment.”
Schervier’s neighbors have proven vigilant ever since a Brooklyn-based investor group purchased the property from Bon Secours in 2017 for $86 million, entering into a joint venture with the nursing home’s operator.
Such for-profit joint ventures between nursing home operators and property managers have gained ground in recent years as private equity owners and real estate investment trusts have come under increasing scrutiny.
At the time of the sale, Bon Secours chief executive Carlos Beato said the Catholic health system was committed to “preserving the historical mission” of Schervier in choosing a buyer.
There are about 350 residents at the skilled nursing facility today. Medicare records show Schervier received three federal penalties totaling $3,931 last year for failing to correct serious health violations.
Staffing levels at Schervier are below the national and state average according to quarterly Medicare reports. Schervier’s patients spend 31 minutes with a registered nurse per day and 22 minutes per day during the weekend.
Schervier declined CB8’s invitation to attend the land use committee meeting Oct. 3 and did not reply to repeated requests for comment from The Riverdale Press.
“They have been a problem child ever since the new owners came in,” said Moerdler. “It is troublesome to me. My personal opinion is it is not appropriate to have this division between the ownership of the land and operation of the facility.
“This activity violates SNAD, and this is the second time. I’m going to ask the NYS state and city DOH to commence an investigation.”