Council Was Scared Away From Suggested Improvements To Tree Ordinance By Imaginary Worst-Case Scenarios
To the Editor:
I’d like to offer some corrections to an August 10 front page article about proposed revisions to Princeton’s tree ordinance [“More Discussion Due On Tree Ordinance at Next Council Meeting”]. I write as a botanist and former member of the Shade Tree Commission (STC) that generated the proposal. At the council meeting, ash trees were not characterized as invasive, and the arborist referred to one that might be attacked by the notorious Emerald Ash Borer in 10 years, not 30.
The proposed changes would make it much more expensive for homeowners to remove healthy, mature trees. The primary aim is to discourage, or at least compensate for, the clearcutting associated with Princeton’s epidemic of teardowns. Replacing a house on a small lot typically means removing all trees, since even trees beyond the new building’s (larger) footprint will be damaged by construction activity. The increased fees — $400 for roughly every 9” of girth, up to $1600 per tree — would provide funds for new plantings to compensate for the lost trees.
There’s clear public benefit here, but the new fees or replacement obligations will also fall on homeowners who may have valid reasons to remove a tree. The proposed changes penalize removal of our two most common invasive trees: Norway Maples, which compete with native species, and the Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven) whose allelopathic root exudates interfere with gardening. The ordinance also penalizes homeowners who wish to install solar panels, grow a vegetable garden or plant wildflowers to feed pollinators. Shade is a wonderful thing, but creating an opening for beneficial plants not blessed with xylem should not be penalized.
Inflexibility is further evident in the decision to levy the fees on homeowners wishing to proactively remove ash trees. Trying to defend the STC’s proposal, the arborist claimed that a healthy ash tree “might” succumb to Emerald Ash Borer in 10 years. There’s no “might” about it. Barring a miracle, every untreated mature ash will succumb. In fact, penalizing proactive removal ignores the warnings of STC’s own Community Forestry Management Plan, which states: “An underlying concern is that municipal employees and private contractors may not be able to keep up with the demand for removal of dead and dying hazardous ash trees.”
Council was scared away from suggested improvements to the proposal by imaginary worst-case scenarios, misleading “slippery slope” arguments, and unnecessary appeals to emotion, as when native plant advocates were characterized as fanatics ready to “wipe out” people’s perennial beds.
The rigidity of the proposed changes, their focus on penalties rather than incentives, and their dependence on expensive nursery trees rather than selectively nurturing the “free forest” of volunteer trees that sprout in people’s yards, deprives the arborist of adequate enforcement flexibility. Large trees provide shade, cooling, habitat, but they also interfere with other social and ecological goods: solar panels, orchards, gardens. Surprisingly, Princeton’s Historic Preservation and Environmental commissions were not asked to comment on the proposed changes. The STC’s important defense of trees needs to be tempered by awareness of other sustainability goals.
(Public comment continues at council’s September 12 meeting.)
North Harrison Street