Improve the Takoma Park Tree Protection Process
Dear Mayor Kate Stewart, City Council Members, and City Manager Suzanne Ludlow:
This petition is submitted to the City of Takoma Park to express our concerns with the current tree protection plan process, and to offer some alternative ideas on how we can make the process more efficient and avoid unnecessary, exorbitant costs. Architects and homeowners have always been required to work through the tree protection process when planning home additions, which has, up until now, been efficient and straightforward. However, in the past year or so, the tree protection process has become slower, inefficient, and very expensive, leaving many of us frustrated.
As you know, in order to begin construction on the exterior of a home, a homeowner must first apply for a Tree Impact Assessment if the project is within 50' of an urban tree of a certain size. The Tree Impact Assessment costs $50 and requires the City Urban Forest Manager, a.k.a City Arborist, to make a site visit to review the project and determine if a Tree Protection Plan ($100) is required. City projects almost always require a Tree Protection Plan since most houses here are very close to trees.
When the City Arborist reviews the proposed project on-site, he suggests methods to protect the trees during construction, and sees to it that his suggestions are incorporated into the Tree Protection Plan. Upon final approval of the Tree Protection Plan, a public notice is placed on the property yard allowing 15 days for adjacent property owners to appeal the plan.
In theory, the process works and it has worked well before. However, in the last year, something has changed and a process that used to take only a few days to be completed now takes many weeks/months. Often, clients submit their Tree Impact Assessment without a response, forcing them to call the Arborist’s office for follow-up, and then having to wait more time before the Arborist schedules the necessary site visit. Often, the Arborist requires mutiple parties to attend the site visit, including the Owner, Architect, Contractor, and sometimes a Tree Company Representative, or 3rd Party arborist. Trying to organize a meeting involving multiple parties takes added time further increasing delays.
When submitting a Tree Protection Plan, clients again have their application sit idle for several days, sometimes weeks, until anyone has reviewed it. New additional comments are often made during the Tree Protection Plan process that are inconsistent with instructions given during the Tree Impact Assessment, but nothing is done in writing to establish a record that can be saved and referenced as the process continues. Emails to the City Arborist are often returned as phone calls, or not replied to at all, which again leads to a lack of a paper trail to reconcile new comments with instructions previously given.
Compared to securing financing for home improvement, obtaining a qualified contractor, and obtaining a building permit, the tree protection process should be a relatively simple step for homeowners. Instead, it’s now become the last and biggest obstacle before breaking ground. The long delays impact homeowners’ ability to schedule a commencement date with their contractor, which takes many months of planning and is very costly to reschedule late in the process.
There are also major concerns with the increasing costs for the creation and implementation of Tree Protection Plans. Creating the Tree Protection Plan for approval has always been a fairly simple process for homeowners. A simple sketch showing the location of fencing, root zone protection, and location of materials on the site, etc. is something any homeowner can create within 15 minutes for a simple construction project on their property. Instead, the City Arborist has often required that homeowners hire a 3rd party arborist to create this plan at a cost of $2,000 - $4,000 depending on the complexity of the project.
Regarding implementation, more expensive measures are now required to protect trees during construction. For years, orange plastic fencing was allowed to mark the areas to be protected during construction. Now, metal fencing is required, which costs 4 or 5 times more (about $500-$800 on average), and in reality, doesn’t protect the trees any better. Also, the Arborist is requiring air spading on almost every project to locate the existence of roots prior to construction. Air spading has been required in the past, but only in extremely rare circumstances. Now, it is almost always required on projects even if roots aren't in the vicinity of construction. Air spading services can cost $1,500 to $2,000 on average,which is a lot of money to pay only to find out there are no roots nearby (not to mention the necessary gas generator running for several hours is not environmentally friendly). It is also an expensive tree protection measure for homeowners building small projects, like decks and patios. In the past, contractors were allowed to hand dig in the critical root zone, and only had to air spade if a major root was discovered. Plus, tree protection companies have told residents that air spading usually can't be performed in the winter time because the ground is too hard. This means construction would virtually shut down in the winter.
These new required methods mentioned above add unnecessary costs to the process and don’t protect the trees anymore than the previously approved, less expensive alternatives. On average, homeowners are now spending $3,000-5,000 more to implement tree protection plans.
We understand the importance of the protecting our trees and this letter is not intended to reduce regulation or weaken protections of our urban tree canopy. It is simply a request to review the implementation of this policy and to offer suggestions of how to make the process more practical, efficient, and cost-effective.
Here are a few suggestions for revisions to the current tree protection plan process:
- First and foremost, create an online application with payment by credit card. There is no reason for a 20 page packet to be printed out and hand-delivered to Public Works.
- Allow homeowners, architects, or contractors the ability to create and submit their own simple tree protection plans without the requirement for a 3rd party arborist. The City arborist was hired to be a resource for the citizens of Takoma Park. We shouldn’t have to hire an expensive professional to create this required protection plan.
- Require that all applications be reviewed, approved, or returned with comments within 3-5 business days. Currently, the review process can take several weeks.
- Hire an Arborist’s Assistant or ensure Item #1 can be completed when Arborist is out of the office or unavailable.
- Require that the City Arborist offer all suggested tree protection measures at the Tree Impact Assessment in writing to avoid confusion at the time of submitting the Tree Protection Plan.
- Allow homeowners to skip the Tree Impact Assessment and directly submit a Tree Protection Plan if it is obvious the project falls within a critical root zone. Being able to skip the Tree Impact Assessment could save a week of time and would not have a negative impact on the trees.
- Per previous years, Orange plastic construction fencing should be considered the default tree protection fencing for all projects in lieu of more expensive heavy gauge wire metal fencing. This will save the average project $500-800.
- Allow hand-digging by shovel or spade to expose the root system before requiring expensive methods like air spading. This will save the average project $1,500-2,000. Careful hand digging around a root system used to be allowed, and will not hurt the tree root system.
- Since only adjacent neighboring property owners are allowed to appeal a Tree Protection Plan, change the mandatory 15 day appeal period to “15 days OR upon approval by all immediate adjacent neighbors.” This could save up to 15 days of unnecessary idle time for a noncontroversial project and encourage homeowners to engage with each other to work out issues directly.
We believe the tree canopy is what makes Takoma Park a great place to live, however, we also need a reasonable system in place to allow residents to improve their properties without overly burdensome red tape. We hope you can understand our perspective on this issue, and will help look for other ways to improve a process that is mutually beneficial for both the City and its residents.
Residents, Architects, Landscape Architects, Designers, and Contractors of Takoma Park