A bill that would prohibit towns and counties from regulating tree removal on private property without the General Assembly’s permission is drawing opposition from local government leaders.
State Sen. Tom McInnis of Rockingham, whose district includes Moore County, is among the main sponsors of a bill titled “Clarify Property Owners’ Rights.”
He said in an interview with The Pilot Monday afternoon the bill is intended to “clarify” that towns and counties do not have this authority now under powers granted to them by the state. Those with them on the books were the result of local bills endowing them with the authority.
“All this is saying is that any town or county that wants to enact a tree ordinance must have the approval of the General Assembly,” McInnis said. “There are other counties and municipalities that have done this through local bills. That power has been granted by the General Assembly to enforce them, and they will keep them.”
The N.C. League of Municipalities said in an “Action Alert” email to its members Monday that this is “damaging” legislation that “undermines local authority and harms local visions of community character that are critical to economic development and residents’ quality of life.”
The proposed legislation also includes a caveat for any town or county wanting to regulate tree removal on private property.
“Any ordinance regulating the removal of trees from private property shall provide that the owner of the private property may remove any tree on the property that interferes with a construction or renovation project so long as the owner replaces the tree with a sapling of the same or similar type,” the bill says.
It says “sapling” means any tree between 1 and 4 inches in diameter at “breast height.”
The legislation also adds a similar stipulation for ordinances already on the books.
“The governing body of the county or city shall amend any ordinances adopted prior to the effective date of this act to include a provision which provides that the owner of the private property may remove any tree on the property that interferes with a construction or renovation project so long as the owner replaces the tree with a sapling of the same or similar type,” it says.
At least 36 municipalities, including Rockingham, and two counties have tree ordinances on the books through the enactment of local bills.
McInnis said from a policy standpoint, this is “a private property rights issue” for him.
“I support rights of those that own property,” he said.
McInnis added that it is also “a safety” issue. He said property owners should be allowed to remove a tree that is too close to where they want to build a home.
“You can cut that tree down for safety purposes,” he said
McInnis cited a situation during Hurricane Florence when a tree fell on a home in Wilmington, killing a mother and her baby.
The bill, which was introduced late last month, was to be considered by the Senate State and Local Government Committee Tuesday afternoon. In addition to McInnis, the other primary sponsors are Republican Sens. Joyce Krawiec, who represents Davie and Forsyth counties, and Brent Jackson, who represents Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties.
The legislation has stirred concern in the village of Pinehurst, where concerns about the clear-cutting of lots for new homes and developments has become one of the issues in the development of a new comprehensive long-range plan.
The Planning and Zoning Board has been studying ways to regulate tree removal without running afoul of state law.
McInnis said he is aware of the village’s efforts and concerns but that the bill “is not targeting any municipality and certainly not one in my district.”
Pinehurst Mayor Pro-tem John Bouldry said Tuesday morning that he is “disappointed” by this legislation and that he has spoken with McInnis about it. He said his disappointment stems from a request McInnis made to town and county leaders at a meeting in December to share their three “needs” and three “wants.”
He said of the concerns participants raised in that meeting, one ”was that the “pendulum had swung too far with the control in Raleigh.”
Officials of multiple municipalities cited the enactment of a law several years ago that “stripped” stripped them of the ability to regulate the appearance, architectural design and landscaping of homes unless they are within a historic district.
“In going back to the concern about too much power is concentrated in Raleigh, this bill is another step in that direction,” Bouldry said. “I am disappointed. This is something else that restricts the ability of municipalities to protect the character and appearance of their areas, and have the type of community residents want. Those kind of decisions are best made at the local level.”
Bouldry said he is aware that any municipality or county that wants to enact a tree ordinance can seek local legislation.
“That is the equivalent of an act of Congress to get one passed,” he said.
The League of Municipalities said this legislation will “restrict and undermine local tree ordinances.”
“For the dozens of municipalities with local tree ordinances already created by local acts, those ordinances would have to be amended to allow property owners, in every instance, to remove trees interfering with construction so long as trees were replaced with tree saplings,” the League email said.
“It is also important to understand that this legislation — like other state mandates affecting local development — has the potential to restrict the ability of local officials to protect the rights of existing property owners from neighboring development that could harm their property values,” it says. “Local officials are best positioned to determine how local tree ordinances should be created and applied, as they are responding to local voters and property owners and understand the differing needs of their communities.”