Some of the District’s trees are more “special” than others – because of one treehugger.
Under a law enacted by the DC Council in 2003, private landowners must get a permit and pay a fee to remove any tree with a trunk greater than 55 inches around. While the law was being drafted, Sierra Club-DC director Jim Dougherty suggested the 55-inch circumference after he went out into his neighborhood to take some measurements. It was the largest tree he could wrap his arms all the way around.
“It wasn’t the first time I’d hugged a tree, but it was the first time I had a good excuse,” Dougherty told a recent Council hearing.
Now the Sierra Club of DC and some others would like the Council to embrace new criteria that would bring more trees into this “special” category. This is their chance. For the first time in years, the Council is considering legislation that gives trees their moment in the sun.
The Tree Canopy Protection Amendment Act of 2015
Bill B21-0318, introduced by Council member Charles Allen of Ward 6 and co-sponsored by Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, deals only with tree canopy issues.
Major provisions of the legislation include:
- Expanding DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) responsibilities beyond street trees to cover trees on city properties such as schools, parks, and playgrounds.
- Expanding the numbers of non-hazardous “special trees” on private properties which may not be removed unless payments are made into the DC “Tree Fund.” The bill would lower the minimum circumference of protected trees from 55-inches to 47-inches and raise the fee from $35 per inch of circumference to $55. (No payment is required for removal of hazardous or unhealthy trees.)
- Raising the fine for unilaterally removing a special tree from $100 per circumference inch to $300.
The Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment and committee Chair Cheh heard testimony on the bill at an October 2nd hearing (watch here).
Forest Hills residents testify
ANC 3F Commissioner Mary Beth Ray submitted written testimony. Her first point of concern is about enforcement:
The Tree and Slope Overlay zoning in Forest Hills provides our extraordinary tree canopy with special protection, yet due to a lack of enforcement, our trees are still often in danger. I receive calls several times per month from constituents who are concerned that neighbors or their contractors are improperly removing healthy, large-growth trees. Some of the work occurs on weekends, or too late in the weekday for City offices to be contacted. And frankly, it’s not always clear whom to call to report the destruction, and what can be done to stop it. Legislation should address enforcement, and define a clear method for neighbors to alert officials to inappropriate tree removal before it’s too late.
David Bardin, another Forest Hills resident and long-time tree canopy advocate, testified at the hearing and submitted written testimony. Bardin asked for a Tree Canopy Advisory Council, as the Committee had developed after hearings last year.
Four District agencies are responsible for achieving the District’s tree canopy goals. The advisory council would advise those agencies regarding policies, programs, and the use of funding for the purpose of maintaining, protecting, and increasing the District’s tree canopy. That Council would have four citizen members (one of whom would chair it), the directors or designees from DDOT and the Department of Energy and Environment, and a seventh member appointed by the chair of the Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.
Cheh agreed to move the Tree Canopy Advisory Council provision in this bill and DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo endorsed that step.
Expanding the District’s “special trees” numbers
Those who testified at the hearing were in favor of expanding UFA’s role in overseeing trees on the District property but there was disagreement over changing the definition of “special trees” on private property.
DDOT testimony questioned reducing the 55-inch minimum circumference to 47 inches. That, said DDOT’s Dormsjo, would add roughly 160,000 to the “special” category. The increased demand for permits, he said, would increase UFA’s work load by 50 percent and require a “dramatic increase” in staff.
Casey Trees Executive Director Mark Buscaino urged reducing the minimum circumference even further than the 47 inches specified in the bill. He suggested 40 inches.
Jim Dougherty, the Sierra Club-DC director who came up with the 55-inch minimum in the first place, supported the recommendation from Casey Trees.
His measurement “was not based on biology or engineering or economics. We just sort of made it up,” Dougherty said. What Casey Trees is suggesting, he said, is based on common sense – and current regulations.
“A 40-inch tree requires a professional arborist to remove and therefore requires a permit from DCRA,” Dougherty said. “It makes perfect sense that we just plug them into the permitting system from DDOT.”