Imagine a young couple moving to the Midwest to escape the grime of New York City. Newly married and seeking open space, they buy a 5 acre wooded lot in a Michigan township. These do-it-yourselfers clear just enough space for a building site, as well as a solar field to power their house. Eventually, they hope to recycle the large oak trees they reluctantly cut as building material for their new home.
This scene appears idyllic; in reality, it’s illegal. Guilty of a municipal civil infraction, the newlyweds are subject to a fine. Like many other Michigan municipalities, their township – say, Bloomfield Township – has a Tree Preservation Ordinance, and large oaks are “landmark” trees.
The newlyweds stop by to caution you with their tale of woe after you close on a lot adjacent to their property. Ever confident and self-reliant, you laugh it off. You are too intelligent to be ignorant of the law! Why, you will simply follow the rules from the beginning and be just fine, thank you. Like any responsible citizen, you download the township’s zoning ordinance and flip to section 42-5.14: Tree Preservation.
First, you learn that if you build a new house or simply want to remove a significant number of trees, a “tree permit” will be necessary. No problem: You’ll just submit the application form, pay the permit fee and then wait for your request to be “approved or rejected” by the “Planning, Building and Ordinance Department.”
That wasn’t so bad, you think to yourself. But hold up there, young fellow! If you intend on removing any “protected” trees, you will be responsible for replacing them “at a rate of fifty percent of the total DBH removed.” DBH, of course, is shorthand for diameter-at-breast-height. Watch out! Do not get “protected” trees confused with “landmark” trees. A landmark tree requires a replacement rate of 100 percent of the total DBH removed, instead of 50 percent.
Unsure what constitutes a “protected tree”? Just consult this convenient scoring chart:
It’s easy! Protected trees score 10 or higher, while any tree nine and under “could be” non-protected. Luckily, a professional Arborist conducts a “tree survey” to determine such things as whether the “twig elongation” growth rates are six inches or seven.
Landmark trees, on the other hand, include 32 species (of varying DBHs) listed in the township zoning ordinance’s “definition” section (separate from the tree ordinance section). Remember: all landmark trees are protected, but not all protected trees are landmarks!
Oh, and when you go about replacing a protected or landmark tree, be sure that the replacement tree you purchase meets the five standards set forth in the ordinance by the American Association of Nurserymen. And your new tree certainly cannot be located within 4 feet of a property line or 10 feet of a power line.
The township may choose to waive the tree replacement requirement if “it is not reasonable, practical and desirable to relocate or replace trees on site or at another approved location.” Of course, if this happens, you may be required to pay “an amount of money equal to the value of the replacement trees” to the township’s Woodland Trust Fund instead.
When you finally start building your new home, you had better get out the posthole digger, because you’ll need to put protective fencing around any tree in the construction area. Be sure to place the fencing five feet outside the tree’s “drip line” (consult the ordinance’s helpful graphics below!); make certain that your stakes are a maximum of 10 feet apart; and confirm that your fencing material is at least 48 inches high. Hopefully, your tree-fence is sturdy, because it’s going to remain in place “until such time removal is authorized by the Township.”
Congratulations! After several weeks, you have successfully obtained your permit and arranged for the safe replacement of the protected trees! Unlike the newlyweds, you were a good citizen and worked hard to follow the law.
But wait! Upon further review, it appears you forgot to “conspicuously display” the tree permit near your building site. Thus, a township representative was unable to inspect the property. This places you in violation of the tree ordinance and guilty of a civil infraction.
Maybe the newlyweds weren’t so stupid after all. Upon paying the fine, they decided to hire a contractor to clear the land and handle the ordinances. For the same price, you too can enjoy your inalienable rights to Life, Landmark Trees, and the pursuit of Ordinance Compliance.