Council delays vote on tree ordinance after lengthy public hearing
By James Cirrone
The College Park City Council heard testimony from close to 30 residents during the August 10 public hearing on the proposed tree ordinance. The ordinance is intended to boost the city’s waning tree canopy. If passed, residents would have to acquire a free permit to cut down a tree on their property or prune one more than 20%.
Yet, many residents argued that the proposed ordinance will put an undue burden on homeowners to maintain the tree canopy, while allowing big developers and the University of Maryland (UMD) free reign to do whatever they want with trees on their properties.
Todd Reitzel, a member of the Tree and Landscape Board, said that data shows that the university and developers are not the problem, which is why the first phase of the ordinance has a heavy emphasis on homeowners.
The map below shows where the tree canopy loss is happening in College Park. It was measured from 2014-2018 by LiDAR satellites, and the darker pink areas indicate a greater loss in tree coverage. While the UMD campus is mostly white, signifying little tree loss, that is partly because there is a lot of green space. McKeldin Mall, Chapel Field, and many other wide-open spaces exist on campus.
Most of the tree loss is concentrated around Route 1 and Rhode Island Ave, and much of it, like Reitzel said, is in areas where College Park residents live. Yet, there is also tree loss surrounding churches, hotels, schools, and businesses.
One resident, Dr. Ian Mather testified to this fact, saying he thought it was unfair to put the burden on homeowners when other types of buildings exist in residentially zoned land.
Residents also took issue with the city fining people who cut down trees without replanting new ones.
“I believe if we’re going to have a successful tree planting program, it should not be punitive,” College Park resident Emily Friend said in her testimony.
Under the ordinance, if a resident cuts down a tree with a circumference of 36 inches to 47 inches, the resident can either replace it with another tree or pay $250 to the city’s urban tree protection fund. If the tree has a 48-inch circumference or greater, a heftier $500 fee can be avoided if it is replaced with two trees.
Most sources say removing a tree can cost you $400 to $1200, depending on the size of the tree and where it’s located. A representative from Three Brothers Tree Service, a Riverdale tree company, said it would cost about $200 to have a new tree professionally planted. College Park currently offers $150 annually through the Tree Canopy Enhancement Program if you plant a new tree. What Emily Friend pointed out is that this may not be enough to cover the cost of cutting down a tree and planting new ones.
“I think a lot of residents are going to choose a fine and then be very bitter about it and never want to plant a tree again,” Friend said.
Interim City Manager Bill Gardiner did say that if a resident proves they cannot pay the fine, the city has means to waive it.
“There are provisions for waiver or reduction of replacement fee contribution if there is financial hardship,” Gardiner said.
Other residents shared grievances with the ordinance that had nothing to do with the fines. Barbara Pedevillano, a longtime College Park resident, simply had an issue with the city government dictating how she should maintain her yard.
“I’m 67 years old and 100% disabled, and I’m still able to take care of my own property, and that’s what I want the right to do,” Pedevillano said.
Younger residents tended to shift the conversation away from the individual’s right to tend to their yard, and to the environmental impact of the loss of trees.
“Most people don’t consider it an inappropriate government imposition on individual freedom to require an individual to get a license to drive,” resident Leo Shapiro said, “Sadly, many of us are still not used to considering the environmental impacts of our individual actions on the broader community.”
Dylan Burns, a board member of the Committee for a Better Environment said he was concerned about how College Park’s tree canopy coverage has shrunk from 44% in 2009 to 38% in 2018, according to SavATree’s 2019 tree canopy assessment.
“Going through with this with this proposal is just part of the bare minimum of what we need to do to stop that decline,” Burns said.
Assistant Director of the Public Works Department Brenda Alexander briefly explained why the tree canopy is so important to maintain. Alexander said a healthy tree canopy can reduce air pollution, mitigate sweltering temperatures, prevent runoff and floods, and reduce energy costs during the summer months.
Meg Oates, a College Park resident from District 3, agreed with Alexander, mentioning the recent IPCC report that said many of the changes in Earth’s climate are now “irreversible.”
Urban forests are crucial in mitigating climate change because trees capture carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to the warming of the earth. The USDA defines urban forests as “trees in parks, on streetways, and on private property.” This is exactly what College Park seeks to regulate.
After nearly two hours of successive testimony, a visibly worn-out council wrapped up the public hearing. Mayor Patrick Wojahn said he and councilmembers need to regroup to properly consider the vast number of concerns brought by residents.