Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sept 12: Council to Consider New Tree Removal Fees

Those interested in good tree management in town will want to attend this Monday's council meeting, which begins at 7pm. Changes are being proposed to Princeton's shade tree ordinance that would make it more expensive to remove a healthy tree from one's property. Designed as a response to the clear cuttings associated with tear downs, these changes will also discourage homeowners from managing their tree cover for solar panels, or vegetable or nectar gardens.

A more detailed letter I wrote on the subject, describing last month's council discussion of the subject, can be found at this link. What follows below is information, critique and suggestions I sent to council members, the Shade Tree Commission, and the Environmental Commission.

Background summary of proposed changes (for those unfamiliar):

Among the revisions would be higher fees charged to homeowners for removing larger, healthy trees. The existing fee or replacement obligation is $400 or one tree, for every healthy tree removed, regardless of size. With the proposed changes, the fee per tree begins at $400 for an 8" diameter tree, and increases to $1600 per tree with diameter of 39" or greater. Instead of paying the fee, the homeowner can plant 1-4 replacement trees, depending on the size of the tree removed, but the replacement trees must be 2.5" diameter and adhere to nursery standards. Trees that size tend to be expensive to purchase and install.

I have since thought of a way to incorporate tree planting incentives into the proposal, which in its current form contains only penalties for removal. It goes as follows.

In order to reward people for actively cultivating trees on their property--planted or self-seeded--rather than simply making removal more difficult, might the town encourage homeowners to submit a sketch showing trees on their property, including young trees that are being nurtured. In the future, homeowners could get credit for those trees they plant and nurture, to be used against any replanting requirements for future permitted removals. Small seedlings would not be eligible for credit until they reached the size (2.5" trunk diameter) described in the existing proposal. Verification could be done by the arborist at the time of a request for removal, so the only additional staff time required would be the filing of submitted sketches by office staff.

The higher fees that the STC is proposing, combined with these credits, would provide an incentive for homeowners to think about how to incorporate new trees into their landscaping now, rather than in the future when they want to remove a tree, and would arguably lead to more canopy than without the credits. Significant funds would still be raised when developers clearcut a property. 
With the combination of higher fees and these credits, those of us who take an interest could then go to homeowners and encourage them to plant trees, with the credits serving as an added incentive.

Below is a more detailed listing of potential problems with the proposed ordinance changes. The primary challenges are how to encourage nurturing the urban forest rather than simply penalize tree removal, and how to give the arborist sufficient latitude so that other, equally important sustainability goals are not sacrificed by the STC's tree-specific agenda. 

Fees to remove the 13 trees on my parcel would total more than $10,000. To avoid the fee for removing any particular tree, I would need to make the case that the tree poses an imminent danger, or has been substantially compromised by disease or insect damage. But there are other reasons why one might want to remove a tree. For instance, the following:

Examples of how the proposed ordinance changes could further discourage good management and sustainable behavior by homeowners:
  • By far, the two most prevalent invasive tree species are Norway maple or Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven), both of which emit harmful chemicals through their roots that inhibit other plants from growing. As the arborist explained, Norway Maples create very dense shade, stifling any growth underneath them. Oftentimes, Norway maples sprout on their own along fencelines and begin to threaten older, more desirable trees above them. Would removal of these undesirable trees be discouraged by the new fee?
  • Trees sometimes grow too densely and would benefit from thinning. Would thinning be discouraged by the new fee?
  • Some homeowners like trees, but also want to have a vegetable garden, or grow wildflowers that would benefit pollinators. Would the new fee essentially penalize them for removing one of their trees to pursue these desirable ends?
  • From a climate change perspective, solar panels are vastly superior to trees. Would the new fee penalize homeowners for removing a tree so that they can have, or maintain, solar panels?
Though the ordinance revisions are intended to discourage tree removal and raise money for planting new trees, there could be some unintended consequences.
  • Homeowners may actually limit the number of new trees on their property if they know that the tree represents a future financial liability.
  • The fees will make it more tempting for homeowners to find arborists who will remove trees on the sly. The benefits of a reputable arborist and the town arborist's good advice will both be lost, and poorer decisions may be made about tree removals.
  • There appears to be no incentive for homeowners to allow young trees to grow on their properties, since these young trees will not qualify as replacements for any tree being removed.

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