Timber harvest on Estes Drive in Chapel Hill
Legislators in Raleigh are considering a bill that could block cities and towns from passing laws to protect trees from development.
Cities like Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh that already have tree ordinances that were specifically sanctioned by the legislature wouldn’t see them thrown out. Davidson, Chapel Hill and three dozen other municipalities would also see their tree ordinances remain in effect.
But other cities and towns that want a tree ordinance in the future would have to come to the legislature to request enabling legislation, passed through what’s known as a local act. And any tree ordinance not already covered by an existing local act would be wiped off the books.
Environmental advocates say the bill would damage the environment and expose cities to more problems — like runoff — from development, while the N.C. League of Municipalities opposes the bill because it would limit the ability of local communities to set rules appropriate for their own situations.
“Municipalities and the municipal officials, and the local people who elect them, are best positioned to determine whether these ordinances are applicable to towns and cities, and what should be in them,” said Scott Mooneyham, the league’s director of political communications and coordination.
The bill has the backing of powerful pro-development groups like the N.C. Home Builders Association. Supporters said that local tree ordinances are used to limit development, which can drive up the price of housing by restricting supply, and that people should have the right to do what they want with trees on private property.
“We are in full support of this bill,” said Steven Webb, the Home Builders Association’s lobbyist. “Tree ordinances have a negative effect on housing affordability and property rights.”
Legislators discussed Senate Bill 367 in a State and Local Government Committee meeting Tuesday. The bill won approval in a voice vote, and will now move to another committee before possibly heading to the Senate floor.
One of the bill’s primary sponsors is state Sen. Tom McInnis, a Republican. In Tuesday’s meeting, McInnis said that people need the ability to cut trees on their property for safety, referencing recent deaths during hurricanes when trees fell on residences. He also said there are more trees growing now in North Carolina than when Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, thanks to reforestation efforts.
“These are trees that belong to private citizens,” said McInnis. “It is a private property right.”
But Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Mecklenburg Democrat, said the state legislature shouldn’t tell cities what they can and and can’t do to regulate trees.
“I’m not understanding why the General Assembly is stepping in,” he said.
Under Charlotte’s current tree save ordinance, developers must keep 10 or 15 percent of the current trees on a site, depending on where they build, or plant new trees if they’re redeveloping an area with none (such as an abandoned big-box store). Under some circumstances, they can also pay a fee instead to a trust fund, which the city uses to purchase wooded land and protect with easements.
Dana Fenton, Charlotte’s lobbyist, said the city is keeping an eye on the bill. He said it’s too soon to say if the bill would force Charlotte to change its rules at all, if it passes.
“It’s really hard to put a finger on,” Fenton said. “We still have a lot to learn.”
Other cities are watching the bill warily as well. Even if they have a local ordinance that wouldn’t immediately be impacted, the precedent is concerning.
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who has made restoring the city’s tree canopy one of his priorities, said that they require developers to have certain tree buffers. The city needs to keep that ability, he said.
“It’s really important that we are able to regulate developers,” Schewel said Monday. “It’s just very, very important that not be taken away.”
News & Observer staff writer Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan contributed.