Friday, March 24, 2023

To cut down Wilmington trees, asking forgiveness appears easier than getting permission

The City of Wilmington has issued more than $100,000 in tree fines since 2016 but has only collected about $10,000 --- the rest of the fines were forgiven or heavily reduced.

Photograph of oak trees being taken apart after they were cut down without a permit on the State Street Companies’ Galleria property. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON — When it comes to cutting down trees within the City of Wilmington without a permit, it appears the city’s bark is worse than its bite.

Since 2016, the City of Wilmington has issued roughly $116,075 in fines for the illegal cutting of trees. It seems like a lot of money (and it is) but there is one problem: the city has collected less than 10% of those fines — the rest were waived, reduced, or otherwise forgiven.

Private property owners have the right to build on their land, however, living in the city does come with certain restrictions. In general, anyone in the city who wants to remove a tree must apply for a tree cutting permit. This is typically a $25 permit that allows property owners to cut down trees on their land while ensuring no significant trees are lost unnecessarily.

But not everyone knows about the permit and cutting trees without permission can get expensive.

According to the city’s Land Development Code, property owners who illegally remove trees are fined and also required to mitigate the losses by replanting trees.

“LDC Section 18-52 (c) states that any person removing any tree in violation of Article 8 of this chapter, in addition to mitigation requirements, shall be subject to a civil penalty of four hundred dollars ($400.00) per tree or fifty dollars ($50.00) per inch diameter at breast height (DBH) of the tree, whichever is greater,” according to city documents.

Despite the fact city code states mitigation is required as well as the payment of fines, city spokeswoman Malissa Talbert said that mitigation of the trees lost was the city’s main goal.

“As you can see, in most cases, fees were waived if trees were replanted, which is the city’s primary goal,” she said.

These fines are supposed to be used to pay for tree planting efforts by the city. Just this week, the City Council approved a $95,000 contract with a company to plant 285 new trees around the city. The money used, according to Mayor Bill Saffo, came from developers paying in-lieu-of fees and tree-cutting fees.

Another consideration to take into account is the fact that while tree mitigation can be seen as a positive, in the instances that large trees are razed, like ancient live oaks, replacing them with a younger tree is often the only solution. This means that these trees will potentially need at least decades if not centuries to reach the same stature as the trees they are replacing.

Another concern is when developers, like the instance of the Village at Mayfaire, plant trees like palms or other inappropriate trees in-lieu of the trees they removed. The city does have a list of approved trees that have to be used when mitigating tree loss, but still, some argue that each tree should be replaced with the same species.

Aesthetics, flooding, and the environment

The City of Wilmington is rapidly losing developable land and with it, trees. The aesthetic impact of the loss of tree coverage is concerning for many, but perhaps, more importantly, is the ecological benefits trees provide, even in an urban environment.

Hurricane Florence was an eye-opening experience for many, especially when it came to flooding. Major thoroughfares and residential side streets alike were covered by water for days — a situation that more trees could actually help mitigate.

Read more: Using trees to manage stormwater: City council hears Wilmington case study

The city recently participated in an ‘urban tree canopy’ study conducted by the Green Infrastructure Center.

“This project, called Trees to Offset Water, is a study of Wilmington’s forest canopy and the role that trees play in up taking, storing and releasing water. This study was undertaken to assist Wilmington in evaluating how to better integrate trees into their stormwater management programs. More specifically, the study covers the role that trees play in stormwater management and shows ways in which the city can benefit from tree conservation and replanting. It also evaluated ways for the city to improve forest management as the city develops,” according to the case study report.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, Wilmington actually ranked high on the list when compared to other cities in the study regarding urban tree canopies with 48% total tree canopy coverage.

A breakdown of the fines

CFPUA has cleared a large area of land despite not having permits to cut the trees (Port City Daily/Ben Schactaman)
CFPUA has cleared a large area of land despite not having permits to cut the trees. (Port City Daily/Ben Schactaman)

As shown above, there is a formula the city uses to determine the fines a landowner receives and their totals run the gamut, from just $400 for the cutting of a single tree to more than $20,000 fines for larger projects that cleared multiple trees.

Some of the more significant fines have been assessed to large developers/developments like Mayfaire and even the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, but private property homeowners can also rack up steep fees for cutting without a permit.

Appealing the fines typically means property owners need to take their concerns to the Board of Adjustment and have a hearing. It can be an arduous process and expensive. But it appears that regardless of who the property owner is, the city is not likely going to collect the full amount of the fine. Saffo has previously discussed some of the deals the city has made with developers and property owners for cutting trees without permission.

You can view a list of the citations issued as well as their status as provided by Talbert below.

  • 3-5-18: Town Center Drive/Military Cutoff Road – $20,000 citation to Mayfaire COA, Inc. Fee rescinded but tree mitigation required.
  • 8-21-19: 104 Windemere Road – $2,800 citation to Windemere Presbyterian Church- rescinded original citation because the calculation of fines was inaccurate. Citation was re-issued with updated amount and was paid.
  • 3-28-18: 545 Dungannon Boulevard- $400 citation originally issued to Autumn Hall HOA, rescinded and re-issued to Michael Heeb and was paid. 
  • 12-15-16: 123 Cardinal Extension Drive – a protected tree was removed, stop-work order issued, new site plan prepared and approved by TRC showing tree removal and full mitigation. $1,000 fee was rescinded.   
  • 10-11-17: 613 S. Front Street – $1,400 citation issued for removal of trees on a commercial lot. Fee was rescinded but mitigation was required.
  • 8-26-19: 2035 Oleander Drive – First Christian Church – $2,800 citation issued for removal of a tree without a permit. Tree was damaged by storm and a neighboring property owner authorized removal. Fee was rescinded but full mitigation (19 trees) was required. 
  • 3-25-19: 2201 One Tree Hill Way – $23,650 citation issued for the removal of trees within a utility easement. Following an agreement with CFPUA to formalize the tree-permitting process between the two public entities, the citation was rescinded but mitigation (56 trees) was required.
  • 5-25-19: 5701 Park Avenue – $10,325 citation issued to a property owner who removed trees after a tree removal permit was denied. The Board of Adjustment found in favor of the property owner’s appeal and the citation was rescinded. No mitigation was required.
  • 3-6-18: 301 S. College Road – $700 issued to BB&T for the removal of trees without a permit. When it was determined that the trees had been damaged in an ice storm, the fee was rescinded and the owner agreed to mitigate 1:1 tree.
  • 9-18-17: 8 N. 26th Street – Forest Hills Vet issued $500 citation for failure to obtain a tree removal permit to remove a cedar tree. Citation was reduced to $100 and full mitigation (3 trees) was required.
  • 7-13-18: 206 S. Kerr Avenue – $1,000 citation issued to S. Kerr Business Owners Association for removal of trees prior to issuance of a permit. Citation reduced to $100 with tree mitigation.
  • 6-5-18: 216 Victory Gardens Drive – $3,400 citation issued because trees were removed in excess of what was allowed on tree removal permit. Citation reduced to $2,200 with 6 tree mitigation
  • 1-26-17: 1002 N. 3rd Street – $2,000 citation issued for removing 5 trees without a permit. Citation was reduced to $500 because the site was planned for infill development and trees would have needed to be removed to facilitate development. 
  • 4-2-18: 1020 Dawson Street – New Covenant Holiness Church – $2,800 citation issued for improper pruning of trees. Reduced to $1,400.
  • 12-6-18: 1110 S. 3rd Street – $3,150 citation issued for trees removed from vacant lot in UMX. Citation reduced to $200 with 6 trees required for mitigation.
  • 6-5-17: 1996 W. Lake Shore Drive – $4,150 citation issued to Osprey Apartments, LLC for removing trees without a permit. Reduced to $2,050 plus 20 mitigation trees. 
  • 11-29-17: 3362 Kellerton Place – $1,600 citation for four trees removed without a permit. Reduced to $1,200.
  • 6-14-17: 4922 Pepys Lane – $2,050 citation issued to Lighthouse Apartments for removing 2 trees without a permit. Owner claimed misinformation relative to permit approval. Citation reduced to $750 with 7 tree mitigation 
  • 8-7-19: 4924 Wrightsville Avenue – $2,000 citation issued for removing trees without a permit. Staff in another department had requested that the trees be removed to facilitate storm water improvements. Citation was rescinded. 
  • 4-13-17: 5026 Oleander Drive – $16,850 citation issued for removal of 40 trees without a permit. Citation reduced to $400 with full tree mitigation
  • 5-21-18: 5527 Wrightsville Avenue – $6,300 citation to Cyprus Real Properties – issued for removing trees without a permit. Reduced to $100 with tree mitigation
  • 12-13-17: 4815 Oleander Drive – $1,200 citation issued for removing 1 tree and improperly pruning 2 trees. Citation reduced to $400 with tree mitigation
  • 11-7-16: 5601 Market Street – $6,000 citation to Enterprise Rent-a-Car for improperly pruning trees. Settlement through attorney’s office reduced citation to $1,000 with 14 tree mitigation

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