a heritage tulip tree was illegally cut down in upper northwest in February 2022.
A heritage tulip tree cut down in the Berkley neighborhood in February 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh's office

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

The District, once known as the “City of Trees,” isn’t quite living up to its name. The latest casualty is a tulip tree that stood on a lot under development in Ward 3’s Berkley neighborhood. The illegal cutting started last Thursday and continued for days, according to residents, because foresters had no legal authority to stop the illegal removal.

Yesterday the D.C. Council aimed to fix that. At Tuesday’s legislative meeting, councilmembers unanimously passed an emergency bill that allows foresters with DDOT’s Urban Forestry Division to issue stop-work orders for trees like the tulip tree in Foxhall or the heritage oak tree and two smaller “special” trees in Takoma whose destruction drew media attention last month. 

With such incidents, residents are often first to report illegal tree removals when a property owner removes a heritage or special tree and without the proper permit. Special trees have a circumference between 44 and 100 inches; heritage trees have a circumference of 100 inches or more.

What’s the deal with these tree laws?

D.C.’s tree canopy protection law, enacted in 2016, is designed to prevent removal of special and heritage trees. But property owners can apply for removal permits if a heritage tree is hazardous. They can also apply to remove a special tree even if it’s non-hazardous for a fee that ranges from $2,500 to $5,500. These permit fees and illegal removal fines are funneled into a special fund to plant new trees or run survival checks on transplanted trees.

Removing a heritage tree without a permit can draw a hefty fine that starts at $30,000. But for some property owners, even that amount isn’t a deterrent because the benefit outweighs the amount of the fine. The emergency bill speaks to a built-in inequity that enables wealthy developers to cut down heritage or special trees rather than follow the law.

A bigger tree canopy provides shade for residents and homes for smaller creatures, cools heat islands, reduces asphalt heat for longer-lasting roads, and saves energy. In introducing the emergency bill yesterday, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh spoke about the benefits of large, older trees. Larger trees better reduce stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, and water pollution. They also more significantly contribute to better air quality in D.C., which has a higher rate of asthma than the national average.

The future of heritage trees in D.C.

Rajai Zumot, the property owner behind the fall of the tulip tree, claimed the tree was sick and hazardous to the developer’s future building, according to DCist. He said the city failed to look into his concerns and issue a removal permit. But Earl Eutsler, head of D.C.’s Urban Forestry Division, said the city found the tree in good health, DCist reports.  

The emergency bill approved yesterday focuses on prevention efforts rather than what some consider ineffective punitive measures. As Takoma resident Alice Giancola pointed out in a performance oversight hearing on Feb. 18, a law without an enforcement mechanism is no good. Ahead of the Council vote yesterday, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto wondered whether additional penalties could be tacked onto fines to prevent developers from getting city permits in the future if they’ve violated the heritage tree law “so flagrantly.” 

As Cheh explained, emergency legislation can’t have a fiscal impact. So the emergency is a bare-bones stand-in bill to protect the trees with stop-work orders while the Committee on Transportation and the Environment plans for more protections and consequences in a permanent bill. 

“I would worry that we could see a spate of illegal tree removals in the leadup to the law’s passage,” said Cheh at the legislative hearing. “If these bad actors, these brazen individuals and companies, try to get this work completed before the permanent [law] goes into effect, they will frustrate exactly what we’re trying to do.”

It could be as late as July before the permanent version takes effect. Cheh is considering alternative sanctions such as suspending business licenses of those who illegally remove trees. Another route is to hike up the fines so much that it makes it more affordable to relocate a tree rather than cut it down. 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • To see today’s COVID-19 data, visit our coronavirus tracker.
  • D.C. police and a community group known as D.C.’s Missing Voice gathered last night at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE to remember Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old who disappeared eight years ago. [WTOP]
  • Mayor Muriel Bowser reappointed former 911 call center director Karima Holmes, who left a year ago amid outcries over her leadership of a center that repeatedly sent emergency crews to the wrong addresses. [WUSA9]
  • KIPP DC charter school is at odds with Washington Highlands residents over the redevelopment of the former Ferebee-Hope Elementary School and accompanying rec center. [Informer]

By Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • The Washington Teachers’ Union is wrestling with internal disputes, with some members hoping for a more aggressive union and others hesitant to directly challenge Mayor Bowser. [DCist]
  • The D.C. Council voted to extend public records laws to apply to government communications made on WhatsApp, in a rebuke of Bowser. She called it the “height of hypocrisy” that the bill won’t apply those standards to the Council, though lawmakers dispute that notion. [Axios]
  • The Council also acted to ban landlords from filing eviction cases against tenants who owe less than $600. [DCist]
  • Bowser says local COVID centers will start giving away “child-size” KN95 masks today. Will they have the same problems experts identified with the District’s other free masks? [WTOP]

By Alex Koma (tips? akoma@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • Taking stock of what local hospitality workers endured over the past two years. [Twitter]
  • D.C. has two underground pizza businesses that are worth seeking out. [Post]
  • Like it or not, the NFT restaurant boom is here. [Eater]

By Laura Hayes (tips? lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Sex, Race, and Yoruba Heritage Intersect in Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Photos

As a child, Rotimi Fani-Kayode fled the Nigerian Civil War and settled in England […]

  • The Phillips Collection partnered with the photography club at the recently renamed Jackson-Reed High School for the now-on-view exhibit: DC is Beautiful. [Twitter]
  • Eugene Rogers, artistic director of the Washington Chorus, discusses the world premiere of A Knee on the Neck and the power of voice. [Washingtonian]
  • ICYMI: Peak bloom is coming! Mark your calendars for March 22-25. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is preparing for an in-person comeback too, with festivities running from March 20 to April 17. [DCist]

By Sarah Marloff (tips? smarloff@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has canceled the first two series of the MLB regular season due to the owner-implemented lockout. The league and the MLB Players Association have not been able to reach an agreement on the new CBA in a dispute that does not appear to be ending anytime soon. [Yahoo]
  • Tomáš Satoranský made his return in a Wizards uniform in Washington’s 116-113 win over the Detroit Pistons, owner of the worst record in the NBA. [Bullets Forever]
  • MassMutual life insurance will no longer air its commercial featuring Alex Ovechkin as companies distance themselves from Russian athletes amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ovechkin has been an ardent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. [ESPN]

By Kelyn Soong (tips? ksoong@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Sign up: To get District Line Daily—or any of our other email newsletters—sent straight to your mailbox, click here. Send tips, ideas, and comments to newsletter@washingtoncitypaper.com.