When it comes to Riverdale’s Special Natural Area District, there’s no such thing as “it’s only a tree.”
An attorney who says he represents those involved in chopping down a tree in a parking lot near Schervier Rehabilitation and Nursing Center on Independence Avenue near West 231st Street, says he’s heard that message loud and clear.
Aaron Lichtman — an attorney who once proposed shutting down the business core of Niagara Falls, Ontario, for a year-long $200 million retrofit — was ready for battle when he stopped by Christ Church Riverdale last week for Community Board 8’s land use committee meeting. He was particularly incensed by statements made by land use chair Charles Moerdler, who himself isn’t too fond of Schervier’s new ownership.
Hurt feelings aside, the primary issue was over at least one 60-year-old tree that was cut down inside the parking lot at 714 W. 231st St., despite the efforts of some neighbors like Sura Jeselsohn to stop it.
The work in the parking lot was supposed to be limited to cleaning up brush and repairing a fence, Lichtman said. No tree was supposed to come down.
“You have a right to be upset,” Lichtman said. “I would be upset. And in terms of what we’re doing now, we are in contact with (the buildings department) and city planning, and we’ll do whatever it is that is necessary to make this right.”
Workers cleaning up the parking lot broke out chainsaws early Nov. 19 and made short work of what Jeselsohn described at the time as eight or nine trees. Lichtman denies there were that many trees on the property, saying instead there were only two.
Jeselsohn was able to get buildings department inspectors out to the site before the last tree fell, she said, but workers cut the tree anyway despite being told not to.
“It was an absolute zoo,” Jeselsohn told Lichtman. “I ran out there, and there were two guys with chainsaws. It is not something I had on my agenda to chase down guys with chainsaws, and it’s not something I would ever really want to repeat.
“The only reason that the trunk is still there is because they decided they didn’t want to fight with an old lady.”
That’s not what happened, Lichtman said, and if someone from the city had told the workers to stop cutting, the workers would have stopped cutting.
However, Lichtman did agree that he would look into that further to see if maybe he was told the wrong information by the workers cutting down the tree.
The buildings department cited the crew for removing trees and shrubs on a SNAD property without a permit. They were hit with a $1,250 fine, and scheduled for a hearing on Jan. 3, according to buildings department filings.
Juton Hortsman, a senior city planner in the Bronx, said it’s up to the planning department to figure out what the property owner will have to do in terms of restitution. Illegal removal of trees typically carries not only fines, but requirements to replace the trees — sometimes with more than what was removed.
City planning is still working out the details of that restoration, Horstman added.
“At a minimum, there will be a fine and some tree plantings, but we are going to have to discuss that,” Horstman said. “We don’t have an answer yet.”
One of the bigger questions Moerdler had, however, went beyond the trees, and into what Schervier might have planned for its massive amount of property in that neighborhood. The assisted living facility’s owners never submitted a master plan to the community board as requested, and that has left some wondering what might be next for Schervier.
There are no current plans to build anything, Lichtman said. Moerdler, however, disputed that, sharing a story of someone who said they represented Schervier calling his law office looking for representation on a planned construction project involving the facility.
Moerdler didn’t offer the man’s name who called, and Lichtman said he was unaware of anything like that even in the works.
Lichtman said he would return for the committee’s January meeting to give an update on how Schervier is restoring the parking lot. But he did have one request before committing to that: He wants people to be nicer to him on this next visit.
“It has not been that fun to be here, although it is good to meet the people who are around the property,” Lichtman said. “I came here because somebody has to step forward to shepherd the process, to take responsibility and to do what’s necessary to clean this up.”