Across the country, more cities move to protect trees on private land

Amidst a larger push to meet ambitious climate goals and stop a declining urban tree canopy, elected officials are considering ordinances that would make it harder to remove healthy trees.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

A homeowner takes a stroll through her backyard, glances up at the giant tree canopy that casts her yard in shade and decides it’s time to cut down that tree to make way for a garden filled with sun-loving flowers.

But is that tree really hers to clear or is she the steward of a communal asset that helps her neighborhood in a variety of ways that may be more important than her plans for a sun garden?

These are questions some communities are asking as they weigh whether to pass ordinances to require a permit and an acceptable reason to cut down a tree on private property. Communities are also considering steep fines for people who remove mature, healthy trees without that permit.

The trend could come to Florida: Miami-Dade County, for instance, has the most days of extreme heat in the nation, defined as “a period of high heat and humidity with temperatures above 90 degrees for at least two to three days.” Officials are counting on increased tree canopies to help beat the heat. 

A proposal for one of those ordinances has knocked around Evanston, Illinois, a small city of 78,000 people outside Chicago, for a few years now and its supporters say it’s time to vote on it.

“It’s a movement around the country,” said Jeff Green, co-leader of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an environmental group that champions the ordinance. “Trees are a community resource even if they’re on private property. They need to be preserved and not chopped down just because they’re blocking a view.”

Last year, a smaller neighboring community, Wilmette, passed a similar ordinance that lays out how many new trees a property owner must plant if they cut down a mature tree. For example, if an owner takes down one with a 10-12 inch diameter, they must either pay a fee of $1,000 or plant two replacement trees.

Broader trunk diameters require more trees as a replacement. And if a property owner wishes to remove a healthy “heritage” tree, such as a 10-19 inch Oak or Hickory or any tree 20 inches or wider, they must replace each inch or pay $125 per inch. 

Fines for removal without a permit go as high as $7,500 plus the fee required for the permit. A fine for removing a heritage tree plus the cost of the permit the owner didn’t obtain before cutting it down could reach $10,000. The Evanston ordinance would borrow elements from Wilmette, Green said, but it hasn’t been voted on by the city council.

“We’re seeing a moment where trees are getting their due,” said Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative at Morton Arboretum. Scott advises municipalities on how to implement ordinances to protect trees on both private and public land. 

Amidst a larger push to meet ambitious climate goals, federal and university researchers are taking stock of tree canopies around the country because of the role trees play in climate change and discovering that the majority of trees in the nation are on private property rather than public lands.

A study of the Boston area, for example, found that backyards alone—not counting side or front yards—have more canopy than all the parks and open space combined. In the Chicago area, Scott said, 70 percent of trees are on private property. “We can encourage communities to regulate those trees.”

In Miami-Dade, County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava recently announced the launch of an Extreme Heat Action Plan, the first in the county’s history. It seeks to mitigate the effects of extreme heat through education, improved cooling options, and a combination of blue, green, and gray infrastructure to cool neighborhoods and communities.

That same plan proposes increasing the urban canopy from about 20% to 30%, Miami-Dade’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department has partnered with One Tree Planted, a reforestation nonprofit, to plant more than 450 trees at Amelia Earhart Park this year, for example.

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Colleen Murphy-Dunning, executive director of both the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology at Yale University and of the Yale School of the Environment, said that the fact that there is more private land than public land in the cities is “problematic for climate. How people change their land is very important.”

With summer temperatures rising, researchers and policymakers are looking to tree canopies to counteract the urban heat island. The shade from the canopies prevent surface heating and trees also cool through the process of “evapotranspiration,” in which they exhale water vapor.

Scott compares the process to the water misters used in outdoor shopping and dining spaces in Arizona and other hot regions. The tree vapor is less visible, but its effects are significant, experts say.

Trees also mitigate flooding by absorbing stormwater, create oxygen and cleanse the air. “Trees are important for creating habitat and for carbon storage. There are so many ecological values of tree canopy that we should all care about,” Murphy-Dunning said. “There’s value to wildlife and value to humans. We all feel better in nature, calmer.”

The collective benefits of trees give everyone a stake in the urban tree canopy, advocates of tree ordinances say. “A lot of people just don’t want to deal with the leaves,” said Leslie Shad, leader of Natural Habitat Evanston. “My neighbor took out her Elm tree and apologized to everyone. It was a big tree on the block. It softens the urban environment.”

It is unclear how widespread ordinances to protect trees on private property are. California and South Carolina, for instance, protect mature heritage trees, and laws requiring permits for tree removal can be found in Maryland, New Jersey and other states.

Seattle enacted new tree ordinances late last year and is considering more in an effort to protect trees designated as “exceptional” and stop the loss of the city’s tree canopy. Seattle’s tree population diminished by 255 acres between 2016 and 2021, according to the city’s Urban Forestry Commission. 

Over the years, Scott said, some ordinances were created to protect the aesthetics of a city or town.

In Northern Illinois, after the television personality Mr. T bought a culturally significant property and removed 100 trees, towns in the region began passing ordinances to protect trees. But the new push for ordinances, Scott said, focuses on the impact trees have on heat mitigation and other environmental factors.

The idea of governing trees on private property isn’t entirely novel, Yale’s Murphy-Dunning said, noting that gated communities often have covenants that dictate the permissions needed to remove trees or to add new plants. And many municipalities have rules about replacing cut trees in commercial or multifamily residential developments. But, she adds, oversight of trees on private property is a “more unusual ordinance.”

Municipalities also require permits for other changes to private property, such as the expansion of impermeable surfaces when owners want to widen their driveways. And setback rules can prohibit building backyard sheds, garages or home expansions. 

Still, advocates say, efforts to protect trees on private property can encounter resistance from people who don’t want to be told what to do on their land.

“Everyone’s tiptoeing around this until they feel they have enough support in the city and on the council,” Green said of the years-long effort to bring Evanston’s tree ordinance to a vote. 

Caring for the environment is everyone’s responsibility, Murphy-Dunning said, adding that although her school trains environmental professionals, she often tells students that “environmental professionals are not going to solve the climate problem. All residents of the planet have to be part of the solution.

"Landowners have a responsibility to be good stewards of the land,” Murphy-Dunning added. 

A version of this story was first published on Route Fifty

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