A heritage tree cut down on Foxhall Crescent NW on Feb. 24, 2022.
Twice in the past month, developers in D.C. have illegally cut down protected heritage trees, according to city officials. Though officials knew about the illegal tree removals — and in once case watched as the work was carried out — they were powerless to stop the buzzing chainsaws.
Now, lawmakers are trying to close what they say is a loophole in the law: the D.C. Council unanimously passed legislation today that enables District foresters to write stop-work orders to prevent the removal of heritage trees. Under heritage tree legislation passed in 2016, the District can issue steep fines for illegal removals, starting at $30,000. But some developers have come to see that as just the cost of doing business, officials say.
Under D.C. law, any tree with a circumference of 100 inches or more is considered a heritage tree and cannot be removed, unless it is certified by city arborists to be hazardous. Trees between 44 and 99.9 inches in circumference are considered special trees, and can be removed, but only with a permit costing between $2,500 and $5,500. These fines and fees are put into a fund to pay for planting new trees in the District.
Just last week, a heritage tuliptree was cut down on a lot being developed in the Berkley neighborhood in D.C.'s Ward 3. According to Earl Eutsler, head of D.C.'s Urban Forestry Division, the owner of the property on Foxhall Crescent NW "willfully removed a heritage tree in full knowledge of the protections afforded it under District law."
The property owner, Rajai Zumot, admitted to cutting the tree, when reached by phone by DCist. "The tree was a sick tree and it was a danger to a future house I'm about to build. We have pictures that showed that the tree was sick and we cut it down, yes," Zumot said.
Courtesy of/Rajai Zumot
The trunk of the tree that was cut down on Foxhall Crescent. Owner Rajai Zumot says the holes in the center indicate the tree was sick and hazardous.
Courtesy of/Rajai Zumot
When asked if he got a permit from the Urban Forestry Division, as required by law, Zumot said no. "We tried for a long time to put reasoning with them, and basically we did not get much cooperation," he said. Zumot said he would fight any fines levied by the city, and said neighbors are trying to stop him from building, and are using the tree as a pretext. "They use every excuse not allow us to develop this lot," he said.
Eutsler, however, said the city did assess the tree and determined it was healthy.
In another case, in late January, a developer in D.C.'s Takoma neighborhood in Ward 4 illegally cut a heritage oak tree and two special trees, according to District officials, and is facing as much as $79,000 in fines. Neighbors in Takoma say the developer told them, "Everybody does it, all developers do it. We pay the fines, nobody cares."
Lawmakers cited both these cases in urging passage of the emergency legislation.
"My neighbors and our constituents were obviously very upset and enraged at the moment and are currently still that way," said Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4) ahead of the vote. "This emergency bill will address a glaring loophole in our laws and help put an immediate end to this practice by empowering our Urban Forestry Division to stop work before they do irreversible damage to our communities."
Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) said planting new trees does not make up for the loss of the District's oldest living residents (many heritage trees are hundreds of years old, and predate development of the neighborhoods they now reside in).
"Once a large tree is removed, it will take decades for newly planted trees to reach the same size and provide the same benefits to the community," said Cheh.
Cheh has also proposed permanent legislation to crack down on illegal heritage tree removal. That bill is still making its way through the council, and she said emergency legislation was needed to prevent further illegal removals in the interim.
"It could be several months before that bill becomes law, during which time numerous new trees could be illegally removed or otherwise harmed. In fact, I would worry that we could see a spate of illegal tree removals in the lead up to the law's passage. If these bad actors, these brazen individuals and companies try to get this work completed before the permanent [law] goes into effect, they will frustrate exactly what we're trying to do," Cheh said.
She said the permanent legislation would include not just the provision to write stop work orders to prevent tree removals, but also other consequences that would serve as a deterrent.
"We will be adding further protections and consequences in the permanent bill," Cheh said.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.