N.C. legislator's proposal would block tree ordinances

State legislators plan to introduce a bill this month that would prohibit local tree ordinances such as Charlotte’s, igniting immediate protests from tree lovers.

A legislative study commission this week approved draft legislation that says cities and counties can’t regulate the “removal, replacement and preservation of trees on private property.”

Reaction was swift, with critics accusing lawmakers of intruding into community matters and jeopardizing years of work to protect trees. “It’s just a very sad approach to stripping local authority yet again,” said Rick Roti, president of the Charlotte Public Tree Fund, a nonprofit group that has planted 18,000 trees in the past six years.

“It’s going to upset a great number of people to learn that our legislators again think (they’re ) in a position to make decisions for local officials about how their cities should grow.”

The Republican-led legislature, intent on grooming a business-friendly climate, imposed a one-year moratorium last year on local environmental rules that state or federal laws address.

Charlotte officials estimate that 4,000 trees have been cut down since 2012, when legislators allowed billboard companies more leeway to cut vegetation that blocks their signs.

Sen. Andrew Brock, the Davie County Republican who expects to co-sponsor the bill, said it’s the overreach of local ordinances that have drawn complaints from across the state. “It’s the pebbles in your shoes that are getting businesses frustrated,” he said.

Brock said nursery owners have complained about city officials’ policing of how trees are planted. A business owner in Fayetteville, he said, was fined for not planting required trees.

He also cited Charlotte’s $4,700 fine of Albemarle Road Presbyterian Church in 2011 for improperly trimming eight crape myrtle trees on its property, although the city later relented. The issue, Brock said, is “whether cities have overstepped their bounds or can come around to something reasonable where cities are not fining churches $4,700 for trimming up their trees.” Brock said the purpose of the legislation is to draw attention to the issue, suggesting it could be modified.

Tree ordinances are often controversial, especially among developers and builders who view them as impediments. Officials of Charlotte’s Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, or REBIC, couldn’t be reached Friday afternoon.

Advocates say trees, and the ordinances that protect them, are key parts of a city’s identity. “This proposal would eliminate any local regulations to deal with trees, and of course cities and towns use these ordinances to help attract businesses and residents,” said Erin Wynia, a lobbyist with the North Carolina League of Municipalities. “Trees are very important to a city’s attractiveness.”

Some local ordinances also help cities meet federal mandates to control stormwater runoff, she said, often with treed buffer strips. “I don’t understand state government reaching into local communities,” said Patrick George, the 35-year owner of Charlotte’s Heartwood tree service. “I am scared to death, and we are mobilizing all over the state to call legislators and let them know that trees are important to us.”

The legislation is especially concerning, said Shannon Binns of the nonprofit group Sustain Charlotte, because of the loss of the Charlotte’s tree canopy.

Once vast, trees now cover 47 percent of the ground, according to a February report. The City Council has set a goal of restoring a 50 percent canopy by 2050.

The Charlotte Tree Advisory Commission serves as an important source of recommendations as the city tries to recover its trees, said Roti, a former commission chairman.

“You would be missing that,” Roti said. “That’s the whole problem – how can someone in Raleigh or outside Mecklenburg County makes those kind of decisions? That kind of (local) expertise is absolutely required.”

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