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Takoma Park debates what's greener: Shade trees or solar panels

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 7:55 PM

The modest gray house in Takoma Park was nearly perfect, from Patrick Earle's staunchly environmentalist point of view. It was small enough for wood-stove heating, faced the right way for good solar exposure and, most important, was in a liberal suburb that embraces all things ecological.

Or almost all. When Earle and his wife, Shannon, recently sought to add solar panels to the house, which they have been turning into a sustainability showplace, the couple discovered that Takoma Park values something even more than new energy technologies: big, old trees.

When they applied to cut down a partially rotten 50-foot silver maple that overshadowed their roof, the Earles ran into one of the nation's strictest tree-protection ordinances. Under the law, the town arborist would approve removing the maple only if the couple agreed to pay $4,000 into a city tree-replacement fund or plant 23 saplings on their own.

"I knew Takoma Park had strong tree laws, but I had no idea they would require me to plant a small forest in exchange for one tree," said Patrick Earle, who teaches environmental science at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "There was no way I could afford either of those options."

Now the case has turned into a potentially bough-breaking debate between sun-worshipers and tree-huggers, two formidable branches of the city's sizable environmental community. Takoma Park City Council members, who are considering revising the 1983 tree-protection law, listened Monday night as otherwise like-minded activists vied to claim the green high ground.

Tree partisans hailed the benefits of the leafy canopy that shades 59 percent of the town: Trees absorb carbon, take up stormwater, control erosion and provide natural cooling. Many of the city's historic trees date to the Civil War era, but they are dying at an increasing rate, and advocates said this is not the time to relax the law, even in the name of another ecological good.

"Let's not go down this path," said resident and retired Environmental Protection Agency biologist Bruce Sidwell, who spoke an hour before the council, in an unrelated action, voted to bar the town's public works staff from using gas-powered leaf blowers to clean parks and ballfields. "Let's remain a tree city."

Solar advocates at the hearing said that they are tree lovers, too, but that scientific studies support the idea of poking select holes in the tree cover to let a little sun power through.

"The benefits of the tree canopy are obvious, and nobody disputes that," said Earle, who along with others called on council members to make it easier to remove trees that block solar panels. "But my panels are going to be offsetting 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. A single tree at best can do 50 pounds a year."

The clash between sun and shade in Takoma Park was inevitable as solar power becomes more viable and younger activists more eager to adopt it, said Steve Davies, a local blogger and former member of a city environmental task force.

"It's been coming," said Davies, who supports making it easier for solar users to clear trees. "For some of the old-timers here, tree protection is like a religion. They're afraid that if we start taking one or two down, it's going to be open season."

But even some veteran solar users don't like the idea of trading trees for panels. Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, installed solar panels on his Takoma Park house 10 years ago. As the trees have grown, the panels' effectiveness has diminished, and Tidwell now buys wind power credits to supplement them.

Still, he said, "I don't believe you should cut down trees for solar." Rather, he thinks neighbors should work together to place shared panels on the sunniest roofs. He cited a cooperative in University Park that put its system on a local church.

'Gone for good'

Earle's brush with the bower bureaucracy began last spring, when he decided that solar energy tax incentives made it the right time to install the bank of solar cells he had long envisioned on his Grant Avenue house. The couple also planned to replace their lawn with "permaculture" landscaping, with a mix of fruit and nut trees. Both projects required losing the towering maple that stood between them and the sun.

The first answer from Takoma Park's official arborist was to deny Earle's application.

"My philosophic bent was to say no," said arborist Todd Bolton, who worries that too many solar-related removals would damage the canopy he protects. "Finding appropriate locations in a semi-urban, heavily forested town is problematic. Once you establish solar panels, the trees are pretty much gone for good."

City code gives Bolton the authority to prevent a homeowner from removing any healthy tree more than 75/8 inches in diameter (six inches if it's in the historic district). A city tree commission handles appeals from residents who disagree with Bolton's decisions. When he does allow a tree to be cut down, the town requires the owner to plant replacements or pay into the tree fund. There's no fee if a tree is in danger of falling.

Like many on his side of the debate, Bolton acknowledged a bit of arbor ardor, saying emotion plays a role when comparing passive machines to living giants.

"How do you quantify the emotional and psychological benefits of standing on a sidewalk in the shade of tree talking to your neighbor?" Bolton asked. "If every roof had a solar panel, you would lose that."

'That's a lot of trees'

But Bolton's examination of Earle's tree revealed hollowed branches - the maple was in slow decline. So he issued the permit and calculated the fee, $4,000 or 23 new plantings.

"My lot is only a sixth of an acre," Earle said. "That's a lot of trees."

Earl then scoured the city code and realized he could use fewer larger new trees to satisfy the law and that they could be planted anywhere within city limits. He bought 15 hackberry, linden and katsura trees at a nursery's half-price sale. Then he rounded up fellow residents to dig holes and accept the trees, free of charge. His total cost: $667.

"I bought the cheapest trees I could to meet the requirement," said Earle, who had his solar panels installed in the fall. "It was better than $4,000 but a lot of work."

The Earles' council member, Josh Wright, said he was sympathetic to their plight. He said it should remain hard to cut down a tree, but he'd like to see a break for people installing solar power. Wright also wants all homeowners to get credit for trees they may have planted in the years before they remove a tree.

For Earle, who last week was named a conservationist of the year by the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, the debate has shown that not all environmentalists think alike.

"What's happening here, I think, is that my ideas are a little more progressive than a very progressive community," Earle said. "I'm thinking a little outside of the box that says trees are always the most environmental option."

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