TAKOMA PARK – In the long journey that is the tree ordinance review, Takoma Park officials met with members of its Tree Commission on July 22 to discuss how to improve the current process.
The Tree Commission presented improvements to the tree ordinance and recommendations on how to make the process more streamlined and effective. The commission also discussed the impact on the tree canopy and the residents of the city. As the first few meetings of the review process planned to take months, the recommendations and improvements are not set in stone and are subject to change.
“In its substance, it’s really about protecting the trees and enabling the trees to survive in a built environment,” said Tree Commission Member Tina Murray about the tree ordinance.
Many of the recommendations deal with the language used in the ordinance and aim to reduce misunderstanding. For example, definitions were added to the terms “ecosystem services” and “invasive species.”
Other recommendations concern easing up restrictions that the ordinance placed to ensure compliance from residents. For example, one of the proposed changes was to increase the limit, from five to 10 percent, that one can prune a live canopy of an urban forest tree before a tree impact assessment is required. It was also recommended that the price of the assessment be decreased from $50 to $25.
The tree ordinance is viewed as a burden to many, a bureaucratic process that seems unnecessarily drawn out but is in fact important to maintain Takoma Park’s tree canopy. That burden, according to Murray, seems to be placed solely on the property owner whose land the tree is on, even if the benefits extend to more people.
The recommendations take into account the financial aspect required by the tree ordinance. In their recommendations, the Tree Commission wrote: “…consider fiscal modifications created by amendments to replanting requirements, in order to reflect the community stewardship component of the vision statement. To the extent it is determined this is not possible to increase funding base, expand funding of the tree emergency fund to accommodate requests for tree replacements to remove trees within 10 years of life, for residents that demonstrate need.”
The commission sees the care of the tree canopy as a community, which extends past the homeowner on whose land the tree grows.
“So, I think philosophically, if we’re looking at this from the perspective of community stewardship, we really need to examine this as a community and not just put it back on the people that happened to buy the house with the tree that has been there for 50, 60 years,” said Murray.
One of the biggest impediments to the tree canopy’s health is the routine maintenance that each tree must undergo. One of the recommendations is to include education and outreach in the master plan that the city’s arborist – or an urban forest manager, as another recommendation suggested changing the title to – updates at least biennially. The current processes assume that property owners are undertaking routine tree maintenance, but that is not the case.
On the table was also the appeals process, which Murray described as too liberal and concerning. She said that with the current appeals process, “anyone in the city can file an appeal on a removal permit of a tree on anybody’s property anywhere in the city.”
The appeals process, in reality, is a rarity, although the language may need to be clarified, she said.
“Tree removal permits get appealed by neighbors, probably every three to four years,” said Kenneth Sigman, a lawyer for the city.
According to Councilmember Peter Kovar, getting an evaluation of a tree that may be dangerous is unnecessarily difficult, and he wondered if it could be changed or reevaluated.
“One of the things that I hear from residents a lot is that their trees that are potentially hazardous to life or property and it can be challenging to have that evaluation and maybe to some extent that’s more of an art than science to make that decision,” said Kovar.
Murray said that much of the hassle that impedes this process is the incomplete record-keeping some property owners have concerning their tree(s) maintenance, as well as the disconnect between what is legally defined as hazardous and what is actually a hazard.