Suffolk Closeup: Banning bamboo

Karl Grossman
Karl Grossman

This area “has been a hotbed of anti-bamboo sentiment going back several years,” declares the industry website “Landscape Management.”

The site outlines the hope for bamboo and the problem getting involved with it. “Bamboo has often been used as [a] landscape ‘problem solver.’ Certain species of bamboo grow quickly forming a dense screen that can reach 40 feet or more [high.]….Bamboo becomes a problem when some species do not stay where they are planted. Bamboo in the genus Phyllostachys, commonly called ‘running’ bamboo, seems to cause the most problems. Unchecked, running bamboo can easily invade a neighbor’s yard, popping up through asphalt driveways and dislodging sidewalks, as much as 30 feet from where it’s intended to be grown.”

And once unleashed, it is extremely difficult for control to be gained.

The anti-bamboo beat in these parts continues. The Town of Riverhead is currently considering joining with other area jurisdictions that impose restrictions on the plant.

Riverhead would make it illegal to plant or replant bamboo or allow the spread of existing bamboo on a neighbor’s property or onto public land. The property owner or occupant would be liable for “the direct and indirect costs of abating the nuisance and all expenses incidental thereto,” says the town’s proposed code. The code, however, is being redrawn after a public hearing last month at which landscapers and bamboo growers said the town should exclude “clumping” bamboo, which doesn’t spread dramatically like running bamboo.

Rodney Anderson, a member of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, testified at the hearing that the proposed Riverhead law “will hurt growers like myself and retailers.”

There’s been a varied approach to dealing with bamboo in this area.

The first bamboo ban here came in 1981 with Ocean Beach on Fire Island passing a law stating that “no owner of any land within the Village of Ocean Beach shall permit any plants or any weeds known as poison ivy or bamboo or any other noxious weeds … or invasive growth … to be grown upon such property.” There was no provision for clumping bamboo.

Similarly, the Village of Malverne in 2013 prohibited the “planting, growing or maintaining” outdoors of all bamboo.

In many jurisdictions, after battles between bamboo opponents and bamboo supporters — mainly landscapers and growers largely — no restrictions were enacted.

That’s what happened in Sag Harbor in 2011. Fred W. Thiele, Jr., then the village attorney, drew up a law outlawing bamboo but, he recalled last week, there was “no agreement” on it by the village board after a hearing. Also in 2011, a bamboo ban got nowhere in East Hampton Village.

In other jurisdictions, restrictions have been applied to running bamboo but not clumping bamboo — as was the plea at the hearing in Riverhead.

The first of the 10 towns in Suffolk County to act on bamboo was Smithtown, which in 2011 enacted a law providing that “no owner, tenant or occupier of property anywhere in the Town of Smithtown shall cause, suffer or allow bamboo to be planted, maintained or otherwise permitted to exist within 10 feet of any property line, street, sidewalk or public right-of-way.”

Since then, the towns of Huntington, Babylon and Brookhaven have all adopted restrictions on bamboo.
New York State moved into the situation in 2013 adding two varieties of running bamboo to its list of invasive species and banning their sale, transportation or planting in the state.

The Brookhaven law, passed in 2012, prohibits new planting of running bamboo. But it permits existing running and clumping bamboo, directing that “the owner or occupant of said property confine such species to prevent the encroachment, spread, invasion or intrusion of same onto any other property or right of way.”

The town’s environmental analyst, Michael Albano, is responsible for policing its law. “It’s really easy for bamboo to take over,” Mr. Albano said. And control of running bamboo is a major project that includes placement of a “root barrier” 18 inches deep with a two-inch lip — “ideally made of plastic. Metal rots away.”

Brookhaven’s penalties are tough. Its law states that violators are subject to “a fine of $500 or $2,000 or by imprisonment not exceeding 15 days, or by both such fine and imprisonment; upon a second or subsequent conviction, by a fine of $1,000 to $3,000 or by a maximum period of imprisonment not to exceed six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

On Shelter Island a ban on bamboo was considered in 2012 but not enacted because of the imminent arrival of the state prohibition. Further, notes town Building Inspector Chris Tehan, the town code includes a “wetland” provision that says in a “vegetation buffer … planting, seeding, cultivating or maintaining a previously disturbed area is allowed” but, as to any “replacement plantings,” they must be “native vegetation.”

Also, bamboo is listed on the Shelter Island Conservation Advisory Council’s list of “invasive species” and that body states on top of its list that includes bamboo: “We recommend you do not plant these.”