Some Pinehurst residents are urging village officials to fight legislation that would prohibit towns and counties from regulating tree removal on private property without the General Assembly’s permission.
The bill, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Tom McInnis, is now advancing in the Senate.
Clear-cutting of lots for new homes and developments has become a lightning-rod issue in the appearance-conscious village in recent years. It is among the top concerns raised in the process of gathering public input on a new comprehensive long-range plan now being drafted.
A subcommittee of the village’s advisory Planning and Zoning Board has been working several months to come up with a way to regulate tree removal that would not run afoul of state law.
But this proposed legislation would short-circuit those efforts, according to Village Manager Jeff Sanborn.
“The sad irony is that the General Assembly has already stripped our ability to regulate tree removal outside of the historic district,” he said Tuesday during the Village Council meeting, referring to legislation enacted several years ago “clarifying” that towns cannot regulate the design and landscaping of single-family homes.
He told the council that current state statutes allow local governments some leeway in regulating tree removal “to the extent it’s required to protect screening and buffering.”
“That is the crux of what planning and zoning is doing, trying to figure out how we can tighten our tree removal and tree replacement requirements tied to those two words — ‘screening’ and ‘buffering,’” he said. “But if this bill passes, we will lose that as well, so it is not a good thing.”
Pinehurst resident Bob Coates brought up the issue during the public comment period at the end of the council’s regular meeting. He said the legislation would take away a municipality’s “ability to do what we thought is best with trees.”
“I don’t think we should give up our rights,” Coates said in urging the council to get involved.
Mayor Nancy Fiorillo said the village is a member of the League of Municipalities, which lobbies on its behalf and has shared information with them. Mayor Pro-Tem John Bouldry added that he, as well as council members Judy Davis and Kevin Drum, have contacted McInnis’ office to share their concerns.
Bouldry said the “overriding” concern many town and county officials expressed at a meeting McInnis arranged in December was the “extended overreach in Raleigh interfering with local control” of things such as landscaping and maintaining the character of municipalities. He said the clear-cutting of lots could affect the value of surrounding property.
He said this continues the “erosion of local government’s authority to manage our development,” adding that they “better understand what we need to do locally.”
Fiorillo said the village could ask state Rep. Jamie Boles to introduce a local bill allowing it to have a tree ordinance if the council wants to do that.
“So we could probably get this done,” Fiorillo said, noting other towns have gotten bills passed.
But given the current conservative makeup of the General Assembly now, getting that kind of bill through might prove more difficult and run into opposition.
Coates noted “a lot of damage could be done in the interim if a community was trying to get a local bill passed.” He urged the council to “stay on top” of this issue.
“Everyone is trying to stay on their toes on this issue,” Drum said.
The Senate State and Local Government approved the bill Tuesday afternoon on a divided voice vote, with some Democrats opposed, after making several changes to it.
The amended bill deletes a requirement that any town or county seeking a local bill for a tree ordinance must include a provision allowing the owner of the private property to “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.”
A similar requirement for towns or counties currently with legislature-approved tree ordinances was deleted.
At least 36 municipalities and two counties have tree ordinances authorized by the General Assembly. Those would remain unaffected.
While legislation has drawn strong opposition from municipal and county government groups, two statewide organizations — the N.C. Home Builders Association and NC Realtors — are supporting it. They contend that local tree ordinances can hinder development.
Steven Webb, legislative lobbyist for the state home builders association, said in an email to The Pilot on Thursday that they “fully support” the legislation and McInnis’ “efforts to restore personal property rights to an equal balance.”
“Tree ordinances have made the construction of affordable housing very difficult due to their restrictive guidelines,” Webb said. “Home builders work hard to maintain as many trees as possible in the construction of a home. However, tree removal is a necessary aspect of the construction process.”
Webb said towns and counties have been required to obtain “specific legislative authorization” to enact tree ordinances in the past.
“Consistent application statewide is imperative to ensure everyone is playing by the same rules,” Webb said.
Seth Palmer with NC Realtors said in a statement to The Pilot said they “recognize that many choose communities for their quality of life, including trees” and that “development takes into account those demands.”
“These ordinances have regularly been used to prevent development or have had negative impacts in areas across the state,” Palmer said.
McInnis said the legislation is not taking away the rights of any town or county since this is not something they are authorized to do under existing powers granted by the General Assembly. He said towns and counties that have tree ordinances now were done though local bills being passed by the General Assembly.
“Any municipality or county can go through that process,” he said.
He reiterated his position Tuesday during the committee meeting that this is “a private property right” and also a safety issue.
“These are trees that belong to private citizens," Tom McInnis was quoted by The News & Observer of Raleigh. “If a tree is too close to someone’s home, they need the ability to cut that tree to protect their family.”
The N.C. League of Municipalities, N.C. Association of County Commissioners and N.C. Urban Forest Council are among those opposing the bill. They contend that tree ordinances can help address flooding issues, preserve historic districts and allow for utility line maintenance.
“The urban tree canopy significantly impacts the amount of stormwater that is intercepted,” Leslie Moorman of the Urban Forest Council told the N&O.
The League of Municipalities argues that the legislation “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.”
Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or email@example.com