EDUCATION: The first is to focus on education - City staff already work with tree companies but could do more to help homeowners - especially low and fixed income homeowners – better care for trees and help them carry out the assessment needed to determine the health of a tree. There is also good reason to suspect that tree companies may charge more for tree removal here than other places. While maintaining neutrality to any individual business, Public Works could play a valuable consumer advocate role by researching tree removal prices in Hyattsville and nearby areas and creating an online price information sharing space that helps us negotiate better deals for tree service.
HIGHER TREE GOAL WITH GREATER INCENTIVES: The second is to establish a City goal of getting greater tree canopy cover and asking the Tree Commission and residents for best ideas on how to get there – there are many good ideas the City should listen to and discuss. I believe part of an amended approach should focus less on 'process' and punitive measures and more on flexibility with regard to replacement requirements. For example, the City could expand the ability of residents to 'bank' trees (and to better inform everyone about this relatively new flexibility). How does banking work? Because of changes made by Council last year, homeowners can now get credit for planting store-bought young trees on their property - credit that they can use in a future year if there is another tree they want to cut down. This is a great policy change that partly takes away the perverse incentive that previously existed for people to cut down young trees so they would not end up in the future with more expensive trees to maintain. However, the City should amend policy to allow naturally regenerating native trees to also count for credit. Further, the City should keep track of trees it plants on its own property and rights of way and bank these trees for use by low and fixed income residents who cannot afford the replacement costs for trees those residents need to remove in the future. Such changes would create an incentive to encourage residents to allow natural regeneration and to plant trees and would create more equity in our community.
FLEXIBILITY: The City needs to treat residents even more like customers and give them a little more flexibility in tree removal permit decisions including how and what tree removals are allowed and in replacement requirements. For example, homeowners undertaking the environmentally beneficial action of installing solar panels should be given more flexibility to remove canopy trees and replace them with smaller stature trees that will not shade roofs. Smaller trees provide many of the same benefits of larger trees - carbon sequestration, cooling effects, wildlife habitat, stormwater interception and should be given fairer treatment in City policy.
COUNCIL COURAGE: The fourth concerns the need for the City Council to 'walk the walk.' Right now there is no option for a homeowner to appeal denial of a permit to the level of City Council. The result is that all the blame for tree decisions falls squarely on the City arborist and manager. Regardless of whether individual decisions are right or wrong, this is not fair to City staff who face all the heat for tree removal decisions. If an appeal process were established it would need to be carefully crafted so every decision does not face appeal and consume all of the Council’s limited time. However, such an appeal process would force our elected City Council to defend its own tree policy. If they believe in it, they should be willing to defend the policy and City staff in the face of such appeals. At minimum, we need a neutral citizen committee to serve as an appeal board.
The truth is that the City's tree policy is not preserving our tree canopy through the solely punitive and regulatory approach now in place and risks turning many residents against the City - a lose-lose outcome. I have extensive experience negotiating agreements with landowners and government and I believe its possible to create a win-win outcome that gets Takoma Park a healthier, bigger urban forest in the long run and more satisfied residents through smart changes in tree policy and strengthened faith in the power and effectiveness of local government. Tree policy is one of the 'third rails' of Takoma Park local government and there is the risk that any discussion of it will bring an impassioned few out who will silence a dissatisfied majority - it shouldn't be like that in Takoma Park. We should be comfortable discussing this and other issues, respectfully and thoughtfully with our neighbors and friends. In life there are often multiple, good paths to get achieve a goal we all share, even if it might be along a road we have not yet travelled.