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Sunday, February 25, 2024

When the Trees Leave

When Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) Laneice Moore (8A04) started receiving calls from constituents worried about trees being cut down on the 1900 block of U St. SE near Fort Stanton Park, she was concerned. She wasn’t aware of any development planned for the block. A search of tree permits, available online through the District’s Urban Forestry Division, also came up empty for any potential U Street address.

Neighbors were worried someone was stealing the trees. “That’s private property –nobody should be tearing down those trees, there,” she recounted one person telling her.

But, as Moore discovered, everything being done was by the book – or, to be more accurate, DC’s laws on tree removal. The former owner and now developer of the property, Anthony Boticello of IDS Community Development, had applied for the permit using the property’s official address, 1808 Woodmont Pl. SE, and had paid over $152,000 in District fees to remove the trees in preparation for development of the site.

DC has some of the toughest urban tree protection laws in the nation and its efforts to develop canopy cover is laudatory. In 2020, the District government and its partners exceeded their goal to plant 10,000 trees by nearly 3,000.

But according to Casey Trees, a non-profit organization established in 2001 to restore, enhance, and protect the District’s trees, the tree canopy peaked at 38 percent in 2016. It dropped to 37 in 2020. That’s a loss of about 565 acres of trees, approximately the size of the National Mall.

And the wards with the highest number of Black residents —Wards 5, 7 and 8 —are losing trees the fastest. Ward 8, where Fort Stanton Park is located, is losing tree canopy at an even faster rate than DC overall —two percent, or just over 121 acres between 2015 and 2020. And it is at risk of losing more.

One needs to look at the situation on the ground and the District’s tree protection laws to understand why that is happening, why it is a problem and why stopping that loss might become a bigger challenge in the future.

Trees Important to Good Health
Most people understand that trees are beneficial. They help manage stormwater and reduce erosion. They clean the air we breathe and provide shade, reducing heat islands. They increase land value and reduce stress.

These benefits are even more important in Ward 8, where residents are more vulnerable to extreme heat as well as health impacts from poor air quality, due to the higher rates of asthma.

Casey Trees collaborates with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Urban Forestry Division, the primary steward of the District’s trees, on tree planting throughout the city. They also monitor the tree canopy, issuing a report card on the status of the urban canopy every five years.

“We really should be prioritizing tree canopy growth to support the health and resilience of the Ward 8 community,” said Kelly Collins Choi, Director of Policy and Land Conservation for Casey Trees.

Nathan Harrington agrees. He is the founder of Ward 8 Woods Conservancy, which works to rejuvenate and enhance the more then 500 acres of public forest in Ward 8. The aftermath of tree removal, he said, is sad and shocking. “You can talk about deforestation, you can read statistics, but there’s nothing like seeing it,” Harrington said.

Harrington says that trees in lower income, prominently Black communities are more likely to be removed, citing examples in cities like Atlanta, GA.

“Imagine if this were Rock Creek Park or land adjoining Rock Creek Park. I think there would be a lot more attention and controversy, and probably it would be less likely to be approved,” Harrington. “And we see that in a lot of other places as well —that urban forests are more valued the more affluent the area is.”

Protecting The Canopy
Under DC Law, both individuals and government entities must have a permit to remove special and heritage trees. Trees with a circumference of 100 inches or more are considered heritage trees. A heritage tree cannot be removed unless a DDOT arborist certifies it as hazardous, although in some situations they can be relocated.

Trees with a circumference of 44 to 99.9 inches are special trees and can be removed, but at a cost of $55 per inch of circumference.

In 2022, amendments to the law newly empowered the city to require a Tree Preservation Plan where construction work might disturb the critical root zone of one of those types of trees. Now, the city can issue a stop work order in cases where trees are being unlawfully removed, issue fines of $300 per inch of the trees removed, and even revoke the license of any developers or businesses involved in the unapproved removal of trees for up to two years. That means that the minimum fine for removing a heritage tree illegally is $30,000.

“DC has the most comprehensive tree protection, preservation and relocation regulations of any major US city,” said a DDOT spokesperson. “We are, after all, known as the City of Trees.”

While DDOT enforcement powers have been increased, DDOT can only deny permits that impact trees in public space or heritage trees on private space. The city can collect fines for the unpermitted removal of special trees on private property but cannot forbid owners from removing them. It has no power over the removal of trees smaller than 44” around on private property.

And neighbors won’t always know if a permit has been secured. In the case above, Commissioner Moore was expecting the permits for tree removal to be posted. But while private property owners are required to possess permits for the removal of special trees, they are not required to be posted.

Moore said that is a problem with the procedure. “They should have let the community know,” she said. “They should have a permit on site.”

Losing The Canopy
The funds from tree removal are put towards planting to renew the tree canopy. The fee-per-inch is intended to fund sufficient planting to replace the total circumference that was cut —so if a 60-inch tree is removed, between 6 and 10 trees could be planted.

But then why has ward 8 lost so many of its trees?

There is no guarantee that a new tree will survive to maturity, notes Casey Trees Conservation Planner Spenser Balog. Trees face multiple challenges such as being hit by cars, salt on roads and soil impaction. They are also not protected by the law until they reach the status of special trees.

In addition, while the money from fees and fines goes into the regeneration of the District’s canopy, District Law does not require that the new trees be planted in the same ward as where the older trees were removed.

However, as a partner of the District government, Casey Trees prioritizes wards 5, 7 and 8 in their work. “I can tell you that over 50 % of the trees that we plant throughout the city are in wards 5, 7 and 8,” said Collins Choi.

Trees on private land are particularly vulnerable. Though Ward 8 has some of the highest ratios of publicly-owned land in the District, a significant amount of the tree canopy —perhaps as much as 35 percent of it — is growing on private land, where financial interests could prevail over public interest.

In their 2021 Tree Report Card, Casey Trees hypothesized that tree loss in Wards 5, 7 and 8 was likely fueled by lower land prices in these wards coupled with increased development, spurred by investments at St. Elizabeths East Campus, the new Cedar Hills Regional Hospital and Skyland Town Center. As development heats up, property in the area is relatively inexpensive compared to other wards.

Is The Trade Off Worth It?
Ward 8 Woods’ Harrington said that the fee for tree removal doesn’t equate to the value of the trees, although it does provide some funding for planting. “Ecology isn’t really measured in dollars and cents,” Harrington said. Fees to cut these trees are high for regular homeowners but nothing for the developer of a multi-million dollar project, who might spend that amount on floor tile. “So it’s not a deterrent,” he said.

In their 2021 Tree Report Card, Casey Trees proposed that fees and fines should be higher to keep pace with inflation, pushing for $75 per inch and fines at $375 per illegally removed inch.

There is a fair amount of vacant built properties in the area, including nearby on Good Hope Road SE. But developers often prefer to start from scratch, building to suit the purpose and avoiding potential structural problems and updated zoning requirements.

But that can lead to costs that can never be recouped for the community. Much of the undeveloped and even vacant land in Ward 8 is home to a whole ecosystem on a few acres. They are lost forever when property is purchased and built up.

A design rendering of the Community College Preparatory Academy slated for Woodmont Place SE. Courtesy: IDS Community Partners

What Commissioner Moore learned was that IDS Community Development is clearing the lot on the 1900 block of U Street SE to build a $25 million LEEDS-certified adult charter school. District records show that IDS Properties bought the lot, with an official address of 1802 Woodmont Pl SE in December 2003 for $157,500. They sold it in April, nearly 20 years later, for $2 million, more than six times its 2023 assessed value of $386,670.

In planning the school, IDS worked extensively with DDOT Urban Forestry, said Andy Botticello, President and founder of IDS. The school and the parking lot were designed around the heritage trees on the site, although one was moved.

Asked if $125,000 is enough to compensate for the loss of tree canopy, Boticello said that was a public policy question better posed to the District.

But he does think that DDOT regulations adequately protect both the trees and the land they are on. “I think their rules right now make developing these kind of [forested] sites fairly difficult,” Botticello said of DDOT. The District has been clear about the importance of the tree canopy, he said. “Everybody knows now that you have to work with the District on the trees.”

A Question Of Kind
Many in Wards 7 and 8 welcome development. For those watching the tree canopy, part of it is a question of what is going there, and if the benefit balances the loss of trees to the community.

Botticello agrees. “There’s always a trade off. I think in this case, this one leans towards a viable asset for the public,” he said. “This is an adult charter school that wants to help citizens of the District that need additional education. So I think that people will be supportive of what they’re doing.”

But what needs to happen as a city is a cohesive plan, a way to preserve trees in areas most in danger of canopy loss. Trees are as much of an amenity as a school, bridge or road, noted Casey Trees’ Collins Choi. “Our tree canopies are green infrastructure —[it’s] the only type of infrastructure that actually appreciates over time,” she said. “But just like our roads, [trees] require care and maintenance, and that’s something that we’d like the city to prioritize over the coming years.”

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