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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Busybody Behind Every Tree

Regulation Isn't Why Trees Thrive in Takoma Park

If you happen to be flying into Reagan National Airport in summertime and look out the window, you will see that the suburbs of Washington, D.C, are heavily wooded. In many sections the trees are so thick it’s difficult to believe there are houses, let alone a major city, below.

How did this suburban forest come about? What preserves it year after year? Most people would see no mystery. Trees are pleasant. They make for nice neighborhoods and add to the value of property. Hence, builders have gone out of their way to preserve them, and homeowners have been inclined to protect them, and to plant more. You don’t have to force people to want trees: it happens automatically.

Alas, there is a certain kind of person—shall we call them busybodies?—who rejects this logic. To their way of thinking, people are too ignorant or too selfish to behave constructively. For any good thing to happen, or to continue to happen, they believe, it has to be mandated by a higher power. Take suburban trees. You and I may think that homeowners would take care of them without assistance, but the busybody has no such confidence in his fellow man. He fears that leafy suburbs would become Arabian deserts if people did what they wanted with their trees.

Takoma Park, one of the wealthy Maryland suburbs of Washington, is densely forested. It is also densely populated with busybodies fretting about the fate of local trees—and eager to meddle in their neighbors’ decisions about them. The product of this anxiety is a tree ordinance that makes it illegal for people to remove trees on their own property.

Alas, regulating trees is not as easy as it first appears. You can’t prohibit cutting down all trees, because there are some that have to be cut down. They are dying or dead, for example, or about to fall on a house, or their roots are heaving up foundations, sidewalks, or driveways. Since the homeowner isn’t allowed to decide when it is appropriate to cut down a tree, government must create the machinery, paperwork, and personnel to handle the decision.

Let’s follow the process in a case that was recounted in the Washington Post by reporter Phil McCombs last year. Takoma Park resident Ken Shields wanted to cut down a catalpa tree. The Shieldses are not pro-asphalt fascists. “I love trees,” Ken says. “My wife is a woodswoman and appreciates and adores trees.” But this particular tree needed to be cut down because its roots are tearing up his driveway and it blocks their vision when they back out of the driveway.

The first step was to call the city’s arborist, since under Takoma Park’s tree ordinance this official must approve any proposed tree removal. The arborist came out and, after inspection and consultation, gave Ken permission to apply for a tree-removal permit. Ken filed the application and paid the $25 fee. (He also agreed to pay an additional $257 fee if he failed to plant another tree to replace it). Then the application was posted in front of his house, inviting anyone to object to the removal of the tree. One person stepped forward. He was an employee of an environmental nonprofit organization who objected to cutting down the tree because, he said, he liked to walk past it on his way home from work.

So the dispute went to the city’s Tree Commission. The five-member commission heard testimony from all sides and, after long deliberation, decided the tree could not be cut down. The busybody smugly announced that his victory vindicated his collectivist ideology: “There is at least a communal, if not communitarian, aspect if one chooses to live here,” he told the reporter.

Someone’s Always Unhappy

It’s not clear, however, that giving strangers the power to mess up other people’s lives makes for happy communal life. Ken Shields, for one, is angry. “The more I thought about it the more it made my blood boil,” he said. “What I am not dealing with is how angry the whole process is making me.” Shields is not alone. Under the regulatory system in force, tree removal becomes an arena of continual conflict. “Sometimes people scream at me that someone’s taking down a tree,” says the city arborist. “Other times they scream at me because they’re not allowed to take a tree down.”

The many disputes about tree removal prompted the city council to hold hearings on a rewrite of the tree ordinance last year, but this produced only more dissension. Fearing that the ordinance was about to be gutted, the environmentalists came out to protest any relaxation in the rules. In the end, the council approved a ponderous revision that it claimed would be more “user friendly,” but which actually tightened regulation by including all trees over six inches in diameter in the regulation (down from 7 5/8 inches).

Those of us who fly into Reagan National have to be amused by all this struggling by the ant-like people below. We know that trees thrived in Takoma Park into the 1980s, before the city adopted a tree ordinance, and that they thrive apparently as well in neighboring jurisdictions that do not have tree ordinances. Tree regulation in Takoma Park, and all the costs, bureaucracy, infighting, and bitterness that come with it, have very little to do with the preservation of the urban forest. What it reflects is the human tendency toward intolerance and self-centeredness. Some people are not satisfied unless they can deny other people the freedom to make choices for themselves.

  • Dr. James L. Payne is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and author. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, and he has taught political science at a number of universities including Yale University.