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

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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)

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