The holly tree in Amy McVey's yard in Northwest Washington was planted by her grandfather in 1936, but any sentiment she feels has been rivaled by another emotion: annoyance. The tree sheds so many prickly leaves that McVey suffers cuts while doing yardwork and does not allow her son to go near it.
McVey, who lives in American University Park, has wanted to remove the holly for years. Now she had better hurry. As soon as a new law approved by the D.C. Council takes effect, McVey and other District homeowners will be barred from cutting down large trees on their own property -- or face steep fees if they do.
City leaders, backed by environmentalists, say they are acting in the greater public interest to stem three decades of erosion of the city's tree canopy. But McVey and others are outraged by what they say is an invasive and possibly illegal move by the city government.
"This is just a terrible violation of individual property owners' rights," McVey said. "My intention was to take that down very reluctantly and put up a flowering cherry tree that I could be proud of. I want the trees. I love the trees. This is a very emotional issue. If they just leave people alone, we would not just cut down trees without thought."
At its root, the debate over the city's Urban Forest Preservation Act is not simply a disagreement about how to curb the de-greening of Washington. Rather, it confronts a more fundamental issue: What is the proper role of government in its citizens' private domain? It is a question that also has been debated in the suburbs, where similar tree ordinances have sparked anger in Falls Church, Arlington, Chevy Chase and Takoma Park.
District leaders say government intervention became imperative after a recent study found that nearly two-thirds of the city's tree cover had disappeared since the 1970s because of development, disease and neglect.
"We could wake up in the next generation and say, 'Why didn't we do something?' " said D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment. "This will protect some of our trees and make people think twice before cutting them down. They might decide to go one way instead of the other, and we may be able to preserve that tree."
But opponents say the government may be overreaching.
"I suppose trees can be considered a natural public resource under regulations, but at some point, that butts up against individual property rights," said William M. Baskin Jr., a lawyer who represented a Falls Church man arrested in 1999 for cutting down two white oaks while renovating his home. "The city's right to preserve trees interferes with the rights of citizens to use their property," he said.
The debate in Washington has its genesis in legislation drafted a year and a half ago by council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). He was spurred on by a 1999 study by the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which found that the District was losing up to 5,000 trees annually. Satellite images showed that since 1973 there had been a 64 percent reduction of heavy tree cover in the city.
"There's an enormous public health consequence to the loss of our tree cover," Mendelson said, noting that trees remove pollutants from the air, reduce heat during the summer and control water runoff during storms. "The answer to the property rights people is that we're all in this cesspool together. We've got to clean up our air."
The most stringent measures of Mendelson's bill were toned down, and in December, the council approved a modified bill with no one voting against it.
The new law, which requires congressional approval, could take effect by year's end. Under the legislation, residents will be required to have a permit to remove healthy trees with a circumference of 55 inches or greater and pay $35 for each inch of circumference, for a minimum of $1,925. Property owners could avoid the fees if they plant new trees whose combined circumferences are equal to that of the tree cut down. Diseased or hazardous trees would be exempt from the law.
Of the city's 700,000 trees, roughly 170,000 are larger than 55 inches in circumference. Many are in parks or on other public land.. Money collected from fees will go into a fund to plant and care for trees.
Development companies fought the legislation. It wasn't until word spread in neighborhood meetings and Internet discussion groups that many single-family homeowners found that they would be affected by the law, raising their concern as well.
"Where's the evidence that homeowners of occupied property are part of the problem?" asked Cathedral Heights resident Lars Hydle. "The answer I've heard is that there's no data. It's not like people in Chevy Chase or Cathedral Heights are just slashing away."
But others said they could live with the new regulation.
"We're only talking about very large trees, which I think most homeowners would be very reluctant to take down in the first place," said Nancy MacWood, who lives near Hydle. "Many homeowners, if they really understood all the provisions, hopefully would not find them difficult to adjust to."
In American University Park, huge poplars line the streets, providing significant shade in summer. Pointing to one in the "tree box" -- the area between the sidewalk and street, which is owned by the city -- McVey said she asked the city to trim off its dangerous branches, to no avail. During an ice storm, she said, a branch hit her car.
"The city needs to take care of their own trees before they tell us what to do with ours," she said.
District officials concede that the city's tree maintenance program has been underfunded for years. The city recently received $50 million from the Eugene B. Casey Foundation to care for trees.
Mark Buscaino, former head of D.C.'s Urban Forestry Administration, says there is plenty of evidence that restrictions are needed to curb tree removal. In the booming economy of the late 1990s, he contends, homeowners rapidly added patios and decks and enlarged kitchens -- clearing out trees in the process.
"That has a significant impact," said Buscaino, who recently joined the U.S. Forest Service.
To some, such as Bob Morris, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's 3,100-member D.C. chapter, tree conservation laws are no different than other residential zoning restrictions.
"The person who complains that we have regulated the removal of trees would complain very bitterly if someone put a seven-story building next door," he said. "There are limits to what you can do with private property."
But those limits also extend to the government.
In 1999, Dennis Tolliver sought approval from the city of Falls Church to remove two great white oaks in his front yard while doing a home renovation. When his permit was denied, Tolliver cut down the trees anyway and was arrested by the city, which told him to pay a $2,000 fine or face jail time. He went to court, where a judge dismissed the case, forcing the city council to change its criminal provisions to civil penalties and add an appeals process.
In 2000, a Takoma Park man won a similar year-long legal fight to remove a tree whose roots had damaged his sidewalk.
In November, the Arlington County Board decided to exempt single-family homeowners from a new tree ordinance after a spirited public hearing. Some board members wanted the provision, but "it would be an uncertain outcome in the courts," said Chairman Paul Ferguson (D). So Arlington instead offers residents property tax reductions to keep trees standing.
D.C. officials say they studied legislation from other jurisdictions and carefully crafted their tree bill to survive legal challenges. But the irony is that homeowners might choose to cut down trees now -- years earlier than planned -- so they can avoid fees later.
American University Park resident Don McMullin said that he will leave a sign on trees for future owners of his house.
It will read: "When this tree reaches 54 inches, cut it down."