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Queens pol says bill to protect bark has more bite

Advertisers who staple or nail posters to city trees will face stiff penalties ranging up to $500, thanks to a new ordnance introduced by Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) and passed by the Council March 26.

"They're an eyesore, a blight," Weprin said of the advertisements by weight-loss programs and mortgage companies that mar trees on many streets. "Trees are a natural resource, and we're losing more all the time."

The law, which was passed by a vote of 49-1, doubles existing fines for illegal postering on trees whether in public parks or on the streets, according to Weprin's office. First offenses can result in fines from $150 to $300, with subsequent violations incurring penalties from $300 to $500.

While posting a small paper advertisement to a tree using a thin staple or nail might seem harmless, tree experts say even a tiny puncture in the bark can bring on serious health problems.

Matt Cahill, assistant director of urban forestry at Trees NY, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting the city's trees, compared tree bark to a person's skin.

"Once that is penetrated, it kind of opens the door for diseases to come in," he said. "Pathogens like insects and fungus can get into these holes in the bark and start rotting out the tree."

The number of trees lining city streets has dropped from 700,000 25 years ago to only 497,000 in 1995, according to Weprin's office.

Cahill conceded that a tiny puncture made by a regular, office-grade stapler would be unlikely to kill a tree on its own. But he added that once one advertisement goes up on a tree, others often follow quickly.

"If people see one thing up, they'll put more," he explained. "It has to be nipped in the bud, before it becomes a trend. These trees have enough stress already with all the other things going on in the urban environment."

But Weprin said he was not counting on increased fines alone to solve the problem. An earlier bill passed by the Council and signed by the mayor in January gives the commissioner of the Sanitation Department subpoena power to investigate illegal postings.

Previously, the department could do little unless employees or police officers actually saw someone putting up an illegal advertisement.

A spokesman for the Department of Sanitation, John Pampalone, said the subpoena power would most likely be used to identify the individuals behind the telephone numbers listed on the ads.

That concerns Councilman Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn), who cast the lone "no" vote against the bill. In an interview, Felder said that while he agreed with the bill's intentions, he was concerned about professional postering operations selling their services to small "mom-and-pop" businesses who might not know about the law.

"Someone offers services to hang posters, and then they [the businesses] get in trouble," he said.

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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