Couple's plan to cut tree might violate law

Patrick Earle points out rot in the silver maple he wants to remove from his Takoma Park yard, an action that a city ordinance might prohibit.
Patrick Earle points out rot in the silver maple he wants to remove from his Takoma Park yard, an action that a city ordinance might prohibit. (Jeremy Arias/the Gazette)
By Jeremy Arias
The Gazette
Thursday, July 15, 2010

An environmental dilemma has pitted trees against sunshine in nature-loving Takoma Park.

Residents Patrick and Shannon Earle, who are eager to cut down a silver maple in their front yard that would overshadow planned solar panels on their roof, have found themselves running afoul of the city's tree-protection ordinance.

The ordinance, which has been in place since the 1980s, prohibits residents from cutting down healthy trees that measure more than 24 inches in circumference at a height of four feet without replacing the trees or paying the city the equivalent fair market value for new trees. The law helps ensure such benefits as shade to residents and reduced storm-water runoff, City Arborist Todd Bolton said.

But the couple claims the law is out of date and does not make exceptions for more recent "green" initiatives, such as solar panels.

"If the vision of Takoma Park is to create a green, sustainable community, then you have to conserve more than just the tree canopy; you have to consider reusable energy," Patrick Earle said.

At the heart of the matter is a decades-old silver maple growing in front of the Earle's house at 231 Grant Ave. Although Patrick Earle has argued that the tree is rotting and soon will present a safety hazard, Bolton remains rooted in his stance that the massive maple is far from dead. Because the tree is defined by the city's code as an urban forest tree, it falls under the ordinance's protection.

"It's not dead, it's not hazardous; he's choosing to remove it to put in his solar panels, and if you want to do that, there's a cost associated," Bolton said of the Earles' tree. "That's not my decision, that's not stuff I just made up -- that's in the ordinance."

The ordinance dictates that the Earles would have to plant 23 trees to offset the loss of the maple, because of the tree's size.

"It seems completely unreasonable," Patrick Earle said.

He added that, according to the city, fair market value for 23 trees would cost about $4,000 at $175 per tree -- much more than the $2,000 estimates he has received from private landscapers.

Although the ordinance recognizes the need for some trees to come down, the replacement provisions are in place to maintain the "ecosystem services" provided by the city's tree cover, which include cleaner air and reduced energy use on air conditioning, Bolton said.

During the course of a year, his planned solar panels would be equal to planting 73 trees, Patrick Earle said.

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