Takoma Park's tree ordinance continues to be a pain in the bark for the city council and mayor.
At their Sept. 27 meeting, the seven-member elected body held a worksession on revising the law, which had drawn the wrath of a passel of homeowners.
There was anger from North Takoma residents about sidewalk work taking place in their neighborhood without proper regard for trees; complaints about the demeanor of Arborist Todd Bolton ("incredibly rude and unprofessional," one commenter said; others disagreed) and about his decision to plant sweet gum trees along Maple Avenue (they tear up sidewalks).
The council listened patiently and then gave Bolton the microphone, which he used to explain – as best he could – the formula used to determine the replacement value for removed trees. The subject is front and center because of Bolton's decision to require that homeowner Patrick Earle plant 23 trees to replace a Silver Maple he removed so he could install solar panels on the roof of his Grant Avenue home.
There was much talk of Takoma Park's "wonderful canopy," which is disappearing before our eyes. Age and disease, construction, neglect, all aided by severe winter and summer storms have poked holes in Takoma's green overhang.
The "canopy" itself is only a true canopy in some places. In others it is a sparse assemblage of trees, and in yet others, it is nonexistent – the neighborhoods off Carroll near University Boulevard, for example. Yes, there are trees and they probably provide some relief for some homeowners, but it ain't no Maple Avenue.
The city's own reluctance to allow residents to remove trees also has been a factor. I've always felt that the Tree Commission's stubbornness for so many years – not allowing the removal of hazard trees and others that were at the end of their useful lives -- has put us in the position we're in: The commission rarely deemed a tree dangerous enough to remove. Now, those trees and many others are dying and we can't replace them fast enough.
Underlying the attitude is a belief that trees are too valuable to lose. The benefits they provide – sucking up carbon dioxide, soaking up stormwater, and shading homes – outweigh any other attempts at sustainability. The anecdotal – hey, it's cooler when I bike into my neighborhood – has always trumped site-specific data.
That's where Patrick Earle comes in.
Earle is the guy featured in a Gazette article, reprinted in the Washington Post (kudos to reporter Jeremy Arias) who put solar panels on the roof of his house on Grant Avenue.
Except that to do that, he had to take down a Silver maple, a large-trunked tree that, paradoxically, had but a small crown. The tree was not in good shape, Earle said, pointing to decay in the trunk and a 26-inch-diameter branch that was leaning over power lines and was "dangerously hollow."
(In one long, uncomfortable moment, tree ordinance defender Catherine Tunis, former chair of the no-longer-active Committee on the Environment, told the council she found it "appalling" that Earle's story had been "debated in a public forum [the Post]; where -- oh look at this nice guy, he wants to take this tree down. No, that's not it, that's not the point." The point, she said, was "the services that the trees are providing to the community."
(Tunis also bluntly asserted, "If you consider the loss of services to the immediate neighbors, it's always going to be pretty much a negative for solar panels." Her advice: "Just don't do that [install solar]." She provided no data or research to back up her admonishment.)
Earle moved forward with his plans, but he couldn't topple the formulaic tree ordinance. Arborist Todd Bolton examined the maple and told Earle that its large basal area essentially dictated that he cough up the money for two dozen trees or buy them and plant them himself.
Since he was facing use-it-or-lose-it deadlines for grant money he had obtained, he went ahead and agreed to the mitigation. He didn't have much choice: Had he tried to appeal, Bolton would have been his judge. He is now disbursing replacement trees to willing recipients.
Earle stayed for the entire, nearly four-hour Sept. 27 meeting, first speaking at the end of the public comment period and then at the end of the worksession, which also was the last item on the agenda.
He challenged the city and its residents to look beyond Takoma Park to the place where most of Pepco's coal comes from – West Virginia, where mountaintops are sheared off, streams left in shambles, and communities destroyed to provide electricity for out-of-state urbanites.
"Mining is a very dirty business," Earle said. "I understand that it's hard to argue that my solar panels are going to reduce stormwater runoff in Takoma Park, but it will reduce demand for West Virginia coal."
"We need to accept that Takoma Park is is part of a region; if we're not thinking regionally, we back ourselves into a corner," Earle said.
Earle also said that in the week his solar panels have been online, his carbon footprint has been reduced by 200 pounds. The average tree, he noted, will sequester 50 pounds in a year.
"My solar panels have done four times that much in a week," he said.
"We're so wrapped up in maintaining the status quo," Earle said. "If we can't embrace the solutions for climate change, how many cities really have a chance?"