New College Park law governs tree pruning and removal
By Kit Slack
On May 10, the College Park City Council passed a law intended to protect the city’s big, older trees.
Starting July 1, residents will need a permit to cut down trees that are 36” in circumference (about a foot thick). The city will also require residents to obtain a permit prior to pruning more than 20% of the live branches on large trees.
Property owners will have to replace the trees they cut down with new trees, planting them either on their own property or on city property. Property owners who replace trees may be reimbursed up to $300 for each tree they plant, under an approved amendment to the new law introduced by Councilmember Maria Mackie (District 4), also on May 10.
If property owners do not replace trees within 12 months, they will be required to pay a fee of $250 or $500 depending on the size of the tree they removed. If they cannot afford to pay the fee, they may apply to have it waived.
Starting on July 1, if a property owner cuts down or over-prunes a big tree without first receiving a permit, the city will charge them a $500 fine. This penalty will increase to $1,000 starting Feb 1, 2023.
The ordinance has been under discussion since last summer, and has been controversial. Some residents believe homeowners should be able to make decisions about trees on their own property without city oversight. Others think tree canopy is a public good, and that the city should establish regulations to preserve it.
At the May 10 meeting, resident Robert O’Brien recalled the removal of diseased elm trees in Chicago during his childhood in the 60s and 70s. He pointed out that it took generations for neighborhoods to recover their tree canopy and noted that trees are a community resource.
Resident Mary Cook said fines can eat paychecks and cause emotional distress. She also said cultural factors influence people’s tree maintenance decisions.
At an April 12 meeting, resident Mary King said that back in 2017, the city had begun looking into loss of tree canopy due to over-pruning by utility companies. She spoke again at the May 10 meeting, saying that any ordinance should target developers rather than homeowners.
Also at the May 10 meeting, Councilmember Fazlul Kabir (District 1) advocated successfully for a lower fine of $500 for unpermitted tree removal during the first six months of the program, while residents are learning about the new ordinance.
Six council members voted for the ordinance. Two representatives from District 4, the northwest area of the city with the densest tree canopy, did not support it; Councilmember Denise Mitchell voted against it, saying she had hoped for an educational campaign instead, and Councilmember Maria Mackie abstained, explaining that while she personally is in favor of the ordinance, her constituents are not.
A 2019 report commissioned by the city showed that 38% of the land in College Park was covered by a tree canopy in 2018, down from 44% in 2009. Maximum possible tree canopy for the city, according to the report, would be 81%. The report indicated that construction and individual tree removal likely caused the decline in canopy, and did not provide further analysis.
Since 1989, developers have been required to submit conservation plans when developing large wooded tracts in Prince George’s County. Under a 2010 county ordinance, developments 5,000 square feet or larger in residential zones must maintain a 20% tree canopy.
Prince George’s County approved the clearing of 1,456 acres of woods in fiscal year 2020 – or about 2.28 square miles– according to the most recently available annual report under the state of Maryland forest conservation law. The county’s draft climate action plan says the county lost 4% of its tree canopy – more than 11 square miles – from 2014 to 2018. In 2014, the county released a comprehensive plan to maintain existing tree canopy and promote expansion of it.
Neighboring Hyattsville has had fines in place for unpermitted tree removal since 2007. Those graduated fines are based on the size of the tree and range from $300 to a maximum of $1,000, in most cases. Hyattsville lost 30% of its tree canopy between 2008 and 2018, according to a 2020 city-commissioned report. That report lists land development, emerald ash borer and natural tree mortality as primary causes of canopy loss.