TAKOMA PARK – The Takoma Park City Council has started a review of their tree ordinance and an evaluation of their tree canopy, a process that is expected to take months.
The Tree Ordinance is part of the city’s code and one of Takoma Park’s highest priorities, created to “promote and protect our urban forest” by employing an arborist to “enforce the ordinance and manage the trees on public lands,” according to the city.
The ordinance is very specific but also very lengthy, and includes certain terminology that may be confusing to some. It includes instructions on how to handle tree removal, replacement and maintenance in order to keep the tree canopy flourishing in Takoma Park.
The Takoma Park Tree Canopy Assessment – a study commissioned to review the city’s tree canopy – noted that “trees provide many benefits to communities, such as improving water quality, reducing stormwater runoff, lowering summer temperatures, reducing energy use in buildings, removing air pollution, enhancing property values, improving human health, providing wildlife habitat, and aesthetic benefits.” This assessment reinforced the importance the city attributed to the tree canopy.
To start a review of the tree ordinance, a survey was sent out earlier this year that garnered over 500 responses. While the majority agreed with the importance the city places on the trees, 71.49 percent of 498 responses to a question asking if the tree ordinance should be changed agreed that it should.
“I think some of that goes to amending the ordinance, and some of that goes to how we’re communicating, how we’re framing the importance of the tree canopy and why it exists in the first place and the community benefit,” said Councilmember Kacy Kostiuk (Ward 3) concerning some of the confusion behind the ordinance.
Kostiuk said that some residents have felt that the ordinance comes off as punitive, even if it has the best of intentions regarding the maintenance of trees.
Questions were raised about the tree removal portion of the ordinance and certain situations in which the ordinance may hinder more than it would help.
“What happens if you buy a house, the insurance company says ‘This tree is too close to this house. We’re afraid that either a limb will fall down of the tree itself might fall down and damage this house; we will not insure this house until you do something about this tree,’” said Councilmember Jarrett Smith, describing a hypothetical situation that would test the tree ordinance’s effectiveness.
Jan van Zutphen, Takoma Park’s urban forest manager, replied that there are multiple levels of assessments that can be done to study the health of a tree and what further action may or may not be taken.
The idea of credits for trees already on a property was also raised. Councilmember Talisha Searcy (Ward 6) brought up a plan of potentially giving a homeowner credit for trees already on their property to count against replacement trees in the future and incentivizing residents to plant them.
“We tend to enforce through penalties and not through the necessary carrots. We might want to think about giving people credits for having trees already on their property,” said Searcy.
For all of the potential fixes to the tree ordinance that may need to happen, the future of the tree canopy and Takoma Park’s urban forest looks promising.
“The biggest opportunity is on medium-density property. So, I think working with property owners, doing outreach education, the value of maintaining trees, existing canopy, is really important,” said van Zutphen.