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Tree Pruning Budget Cuts Raise Fears of Falling Branches

A tree fell on a family in Central Park in 2017.
A tree fell on a family in Central Park in 2017.
Ben Fractenberg/DNAinfo

The city’s canopy of more than 2.6 million street and park trees will have to wait for scheduled prunings due to new budget cuts — a move slammed by a former Parks Department commissioner as “foolish” and dangerous.

The Fiscal 2021 Executive Plan includes a budget reduction of $7.2 million for tree pruning contracts, leaving about $1.5 million for the job. City trees are generally trimmed every seven to 10 years.

Park advocates and government officials, pointing to past incidents where people were severely injured — or worse — by plummeting branches, sounded the alarm over the cuts.

“The problem with not pruning is if a limb falls from a tall tree, it can cause tremendous damage. It can kill people,” said Adrian Benepe, who served as Parks commissioner from 2002 to 2012.

“It’s a meaningless cut that could cause damage both to the trees and to people.”

After the city slashed tree-pruning funding in 2010, tree-related injury claims soared. By delaying pruning contracts, the city saved $1 million — but settlement costs neared $15 million, records show.

“One bad tree limb fall wipes out all your savings,” said Benepe. “This saving is pennywise and pound foolish.”

During 2010, the city pruned less than 30,000 street trees — 50,000 fewer trees than the year before. Full funding for the Parks pruning program wasn’t restored until FY2013 when the 10-year pruning cycle was reinstated.

Claims for injuries caused by trees increased by 92% — from just under 400 claims to over 700 — during the period of reduced pruning and maintenance. In some community districts outside Manhattan claims increased by 590%, according to a 2015 ClaimStat report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

In 2015, Stringer told the City Council that there is a direct correlation between million-dollar legal claims and the amount of money the city allocates for tree pruning each year.

Inspections Cited

Reduced tree pruning isn’t synonymous with dangerous conditions, said Dan Kastanis, a Parks Department spokesperson. “Tree pruning is important, but inspections keep people safe, and proactive tree inspections are continuing in every borough, every day,” he said.

He added that “hazardous tree conditions are also identified with the assistance of public service requests” through the NYC Street Tree Map, the NYC Parks website, and 3-1-1.

But Benepe and others pointed to past tragedies in warning to keep the budget intact.

On July 9, 2009, a Central Park Conservancy official filed a report about a 15-foot oak tree limb that hung over the park’s 63rd street entrance.

Rows of London Plane trees cover a walkway in Bryant Park, July 10, 2020.
Rows of London Plane trees cover a walkway in Bryant Park, July 10, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Twenty days later, the same branch — still unpruned — dropped from 37 feet up and struck Google engineer, Sasha Blair-Goldensohn.

Blair-Goldensohn, then 33, suffered traumatic brain injuries, paralysis, and spinal cord damage, according to his family’s lawsuit against the city. The case was settled for $11.5 million in 2012.

Less than six months later, Elmaz Qyra — a Brooklyn transplant from Albania — died instantly after being struck by a 20-foot branch from an American Elm tree while walking along Central Park’s Literary Walk.

Despite the Parks Department’s arguments that the limb fell due to the weight of the snow after a storm, court records revealed the same branch had been inspected less than two months earlier and was labeled “Priority 1 Immediate Attention” due to its deterioration. The case was settled for $3 million.

In August 2017, Anne Monoky Goldman and her three young children were struck by a 75-foot, 3,000-pound Elm tree in the park.

The mother suffered four fractures in her neck while her son sustained a skull fracture, according to court papers. The other two children did not suffer major injuries.

Since the incident, Monoky Goldman and her husband have filed a $200 million dollar suit against the city and several entities charged with maintaining park trees, including the Central Park Conservancy. Her attorney, Thomas Kline, told WABC that “two extraordinarily qualified experts” he hired found the fallen tree was under-maintained.

Last week, a cop was knocked unconscious by a tree branch in the Upper East Side. In May, a tree limb fell onto four people enjoying a picnic in Riverside Park as they maintained social distance. Three of the victims were hospitalized.

Neighbor Edward Soloway said the incident occured on the path he walks everyday.

“No one takes heed. If you’re going to the beach, you see a sign that says swim at your own risk,” said Soloway, who has lived on the Upper West Side for over 20 years. “There’s no ‘walk in the park at your own risk.’ It’s frustrating.”

City ‘Dragged Its Feet’

Such incidents could be largely avoided “by the city taking responsibility for the property that it owns,” said Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, a non-profit watchdog group dedicated to improving public parks.

“Pruning is not a priority, and neither is the care of trees,” said Croft who has documented tree-related claims throughout the past decade. “As we’ve seen time and time again, that has real consequences to the families of those killed and those seriously injured.”

After a tree crashed down and killed a food delivery man in Red Hook in 2015, Councilmember Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) began drafting tree safety legislation calling for increased training and prior certification for tree pruning.

Treyger contends that after Superstorm Sandy, tree conditions worsened significantly and trees were being assessed by individuals without licenses or expertise in arboriculture.

“The City of New York dragged its feet a long time in terms of adequate maintenance,” said Treyger. “They always tried to come up with these bureaucratic answers why they felt that their system was best, but I still maintain that this is a part of a safety issue and also just doing the right thing by parks.”

The legislation never saw the light of day. Treyger said he was told by the Parks Department that “they didn’t just object to the measure in terms of the cost, but they objected to the measure saying that they already are confident in their practices.”

Treyger understands the pruning budget cut came out of “a whole host of painful decisions to just keep the city functioning.” But the pruning funds should be restored, especially if the city gets an infusion of federal money, he said.

“This is a matter of safety, not just a matter of maintenance,” he added.

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