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Tree Canopy ~ continued from December 2018 issue pdf page 1

Trees and tree canopy may be the major reason that at times there is, according to an October 2018 study by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), on one of the hottest days of summer there was a 17-degree temperature difference between neighborhoods in Northeast with few trees (such as Michigan Park) neighborhoods in Northwest close to Rock Creek where are found trees in great abundance. Similar findings were recorded in Baltimore with, as in DC, the neighborhoods having an abundance of trees are substantially cooler than those without; given that it is the leaves from which the evaporating water works to cool the air, more trees mean less heat.

And, according to a 2016 study, simply looking at and being among trees can decrease stress, create happiness, and help to create focus.

In a 2018 study reported by the U.S. Forest Service, scientists David Nowak and Eric Greenfield assert that DC’s tree loss rate is second in loss of tree canopy on a statewide level directly behind Rhode Island. The purpose of this objective national study was to discern patterns using digital aerial images from 20 major cities comparing images between 2009 and 2014, noting that areas with high rates of urban development such as DC are losing trees the fastest.

“The most intensive change,” according to the reported study results, “occurred within urban areas, with tree cover in these areas dropping one percent over the 5-year period, compared to a 0.7 percent drop in urban/community areas. States/districts with the greatest statistically significant annual decline in percent urban tree cover were: Oklahoma (−0.92%/yr), District of Columbia (−0.44%/yr), Rhode Island (−0.40%/yr), Oregon (−0.38%/yr) and Georgia (−0.37%/yr). Coinciding with the loss of tree cover was a gain in impervious cover, with impervious cover increasing 0.6 percent in urban/community areas and 1.0 percent in urban areas over the 5-year period. Such changes in cover types affect the benefits derived from urban forests and consequently the health and wellbeing of urban residents.”

This research contradicts the claim by DDOT> that the “DC urban tree canopy is at 37.2% and has increased 2.1%.”

An earlier study from 2015, “Tree Canopy Change and Neighborhood Stability,” further supports this analysis. The study emphasizes that “the Urban Tree Canopy (UTC) has environmental benefits including “heat-stress mitigation, carbon sequestration, noise reduction, air and water quality improvement and stormwater reduction.”

The study examined the period five-year period between 2006 and 2011 and found that that the tree canopy is greater in wealthier residential neighborhoods and may be impeded by growing population and increased development as in DC. Residential property has the greatest potential for a more extensive tree canopy.

The survival of this recently planted tree on Connecticut Avenue just north of Dupont Circle may well be problematic. photo--Larry Ray--The InTowner.

The survival of this recently planted tree on Connecticut Avenue just north of Dupont Circle may well be problematic. photo–Larry Ray–The InTowner.

The study recorded DC’s tree canopy at 28.63%, noting negative correlations in neighborhoods with a high percentage of renters, and neighborhoods with high percentage of housing built after 1990. Positive correlations included neighborhoods with high a percentage of elderly residents and housing structures built in the 1950s and housing built in the 1980s, noting that DC had a “robust tree management program” in the 1950s but that “[n]ew development has had adverse effects on tree conservation and new planting.”

So, why the discrepancy between the percentages cited by DC government and the federal government? It might be the calculation method. The two federal studies were based on aerial images while DC may be calculating based on number of trees and number of tree plantings., a nonprofit that has partnered with DC government to improve landscaping along the city’s streets, notes on its website an American Forests study reporting that between 1973 and 1997 DC lost two thirds of its tree cover. One of their programs is “park partners” which facilitates citizens “adopting” green spaces which they will undertake providing care.

Comments from DC Residents

Columbia Heights ANC Commissioner Sharon Farmer: “Developers are ruining our neighborhoods and communities as they do designs and buildings that don’t fit in. The killing of trees that make oxygen and beauty are treated like firewood to be used and disposed of . . . that’s not right.”

Capitol Hill Resident James: “I have lived here for 30 years and have fought for trees all of that time. In the beginning, I had many trees chopped down by possible neighbors who thought I was gentrifying the neighborhood.”

Logan Circle Resident Betty: “Trees are not only beautiful but they promote a healthy community from air quality to temperature coolness.”

Park View Resident Michael: “I noticed your posting to Nextdoor website about writing an article on the recent data regarding DC’s tree canopy. You may have noticed the same issues that I have living and walking around Park View and Columbia Heights. One, when trees are planted in neighborhoods in front of homes, no one speaks with the neighbors or leaves any materials about the need to water these trees or what watering frequency is recommended. Two, many trees are planted in areas with no access to water and seemingly no plan to have someone water. Look around Tubman Elementary or the 11th Street dog park. The new plantings keep dying off. I would be curious to know what amount we have spent on trees that eventually die within two to three years.”

This replacement tree in the 2100 block of P Street a couple of block from Rock Creek is dying. photo--Larry Ray--The InTowner.

This replacement tree in the 2100 block of P Street a couple of block from Rock Creek is dying. photo–Larry Ray–The InTowner.

A bit of history

DC has generally 19 percent more trees than the average American city. Some are astounded to learn that Washington was known as “The City of Trees.” History has it that Thomas Jefferson first installed Lombardy poplars along Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. Commenting on the felling of trees as the new city was developing, he is reported to have said, “I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling sacrifices to the cupidity of their owners or the necessity of the poor. . . . The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries, seems to me a crime little short of murder; it pains me to an unspeakable degree.”

Then in the 1870s Alexander Shepherd aka “Boss” planted 60,000 trees.

In 1913, the Washington Post reported that DC had more than 100,000 street trees, not even counting park trees. More recently, the Post’s John Kelly wrote about East Capitol Street having become a green tunnel.

A Variety of Causes for the Decreasing Tree Canopy

Enforcement of Tree Cutting

DC has strong laws and regulations for the protection of tree. For example: Private property trees between 44 and 99.9 inches in circumference are considered “Special Trees.” Trees that are greater than 100 inches in circumference are considered “Heritage Trees.”

[Ed. Note: As we reported in early 2004 (“Tree Removals from Private Property Now Restricted; Public Must be Informed”), the DC transportation department (DDOT) was finally near issuing its regulations to implement the Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002, which had been signed by the mayor a year before, on January 22, 2003. Five years later, on February 6 of this year, DDOT published new tree regulations prohibiting owners of trees on their private property from removing –- in the absence of having received a permit to do so — non-hazardous trees having a circumference greater than 55 inches (measured at a height of four-and-a-half feet from the ground.]

As for removing “Special Trees,” a Special Tree Removal Permit is required; “Heritage Trees” in healthy condition cannot be removed.

It is unclear why this law is inconsistently enforced. An example was the chopping down of the large, 65-foot walnut tree that stood in the large rear outdoor space behind the now-closed Marrakech restaurant at 2141 P Street, NW that had been used by patrons of its downstairs bar. Although informed the ANC commissioner whose single member district includes the block of P Street that its tree could not be removed without first obtaining a special permit, it was taken down anyway. No action was initiated by the city following that violation and it was never determined why nothing was done; perhaps it was because the establishment was shuttered due to liquor law violations that caused the ABC Board to terminate its license.

Population Weighted Density

The Census Bureau’s most recent numbers, as of July, 1, 2018, have DC population at a little more than 700,000, which is an increase since 2010 of a little over 15 percent, and computes to a  population density  of more than 11,000 per square mile. This raises environmental sustainability issues, including the planting, maintaining and replacement of trees.

This young tree at Florida Avenue & T Street, NW appears to be well cared for. photo--Larry Ray--The InTowner.

This young tree at Florida Avenue & T Street, NW appears to be well cared for. photo–Larry Ray–The InTowner.

DC Streetscaping

Many residents cite the city’s streetscaping practices. For example, in 2007 DDOT initiated a $3.5 million contract to streetscape the three blocks of P Street between Dupont Circle and Rock Creek. In addition to installing new sidewalks, curbs and other improvements, all the existing trees were chopped down to be replaced with saplings. Now, 10 years later, these blocks really do not have much of a tree canopy.

In 2010, DDOT decided to streetscape Dupont East’s five blocks of 17th Street between P and R Streets, NW. 17th Street neighbors, knowing of the P Street fiasco, literally hugged the old trees to prevent them from being destroyed, only to be replaced by saplings; to its credit, DDOT did not fight and also did plant saplings in empty tree boxes.

A more recent example is DDOT’s “MARP-Massachusetts Avenue Rehabilitation Plan” for the one-mile stretch from Dupont Circle out through Embassy Row. The nonprofit Restore Massachusetts Avenue<> organization is concerned that all 200 of the curbside trees and many second row trees will be at risk, and is attempting to persuade DDOT to work around those trees. From what the organization reported last month, prospects are encouraging:

“RMA won changes to a [DDOT] plan to replace the roadbed, gutters, sidewalks and lights of Massachusetts Avenue –- through the heart of Embassy Row!

“Restore Mass Ave’s goal of restoring the beautiful tree canopy of Embassy Row has been challenged by a . . . DDOT plan to ‘rehabilitate’<> nearly one mile of Mass Ave starting next year. This plan not only threatened mature and young trees on Mass Ave, it may be typical of DDOT plans for other major District streets.

“In pushing back to make the Mass Ave plans greener, RMA is not only trying to save 11 years of tree-growing on Embassy Row. We hope to change how DDOT sets about modernizing major roads across town.”

Tree Chopping not Trimming

DDOT regularly hires contractors to take care of the street trees. Several years ago, Columbia Heights neighbors confronted one of those contractors at the corner of 11th and Park Road, NW. One of the neighbors identified himself as a tree expert working in Maryland, and advised the contractor that the tree only needed to be trimmed and not chopped down. The contractor’s response was that it was easier to chop down rather than to take the time to do a proper trimming.

This heritage tree in the 3500 block of 10th Street, NW was illegally chopped down. photo--Larry Ray--The InTowner.

This heritage tree in the 3500 block of 10th Street, NW was illegally chopped down. photo–Larry Ray–The InTowner.

Developers Focus on Tree Replacement not the Canopy

Another unwitting canopy culprit may be developers. Their focus is usually on buildings, not trees or the canopy. If their development involves the cutting of trees, they sound the mantra of replacing one tree for another tree. City officials and advisory neighborhood commissioners need to reframe the tree issue to a tree canopy issue.

The developer of a property in the 3500 block of 10th Street, NW wants to transform the row house at into three condos with several parking spaces. To do so, they propose to create a three story addition and to replace with a sapling the 55 year old oak tree which now provides 30 square feet of canopy. The sapling, by contrast, might possibly provide just three square feet of canopy.

This was an odd situation. The developer chopped down the tree early Sunday morning July 1st, but the permit was not finalized until over four months later, on November 16th.

In response to our inquiry for an explanation how this could have occurred without penalty, on November 20th Vera Munevver Ertem, Supervisory Urban Forester of DDOT’s Urban Forestry Division, emailed the following response: “Yes they have permit now [sic]. We reached them out [sic]. They had applied for a permit in the past, but hadn’t pay [sic] the fee yet. They made the payment last Friday and received the permit. Special trees (trees between 44” and 99.9” circumference) can be removed with payment of $55 per inch of circumference. Heritage trees 100 [inches] and over cannot be removed even with payment. We deny the permit. This was a Special Tree, not a heritage tree by its size.”

Planting Trees with no Protection

Two former Columbia Heights ANC commissioners, following a walkabout in the neighborhood (staff member John Hillegass of Councilmember Brianne Nadeau’s office participated), implored staff at Urban Forestry to protect the trees in the little park located on the southeast side of the Park Road and 14th Street intersection known as Tivoli Square, but they declared their mandate was merely to plant the trees not protect them. So, DDOT plants, replants and replaces tree saplings in Tivoli Square — nothing more. Because they are unprotected, miscreants damage the roots by exercising and parking their bikes  around them, urinating on them, even playfully breaking limbs. So, after 12 years, there is essentially no tree canopy over Tivoli Square.

[Ed. Note: A news item we posted a little over two years ago, “Street Trees & Tree Boxes: What is the City’s Responsibility?,” substantiates what Councilmember Nadeau’s staff has reported.]

*Larry Ray is a former ANC Commissioner of Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights. He is a Senior Adjunct at The George Washington University School of Law and arbitrator for the (Financial Industries Regulatory Authority, Inc.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §§107 & 108 (“fair use”).