State lawmakers are supposed to govern on the important matters of state, but like a didactic dad they just can’t resist wagging a finger at local governments and telling them “No.”
“No,” you cannot tax local businesses that use your services, consume your water and impact your roads. “No,” you cannot regulate the appearance and design of homes.
And, pretty soon, “no,” you cannot have local laws protecting the removal of trees on private property.
A Senate committee last week advanced a bill that would expressly prohibit municipalities from enacting local ordinances governing tree removal, unless they ask the legislature first.
Or, as Pinehurst Mayor Pro Tem John Bouldry so colorfully describes the chances of that happening: “That is the equivalent of an act of Congress to get one passed.”
In Dr. Seuss’ environmentally themed “The Lorax,” it was that mustachioed worry-wart of the same name running around fretting over the actions of the Once-ler and his family’s decimation of the Truffula trees: “I am the Lorax who speaks for the trees, which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please!”
Our version of that story is turned on its head.
Private Property Rights
Instead of The Lorax, we have The More-Ax, and it’s someone close to us: our own state Sen. Tom McInnis.
It’s McInnis’ bill — euphemistically titled “Clarify Property Owners’ Rights” — that, as he sees it, stands up for private property rights.
“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.
For instance, he cites the situation during Hurricane Florence last September when a tree fell on a home in Wilmington, killing a mother and her baby. In his mind, that tree was a health hazard just biding its time before killing someone. But doggone it, New Hanover County and its municipalities had a regulation on the books regulating tree removal.
In fact, New Hanover is one of about 36 local governments that have local ordinances — approved by the legislature — regulating tree removal. McInnis’ original bill would have required those ordinances be weakened, allowing trees to be removed so long as they were replaced with saplings. The bill was mercifully pruned this past week to let existing ordinances stand.
We get that McInnis thinks people should be able to take down a tree on their property. We’re not totally opposed to that. The concern is one of scale.
The legislation sets up developers to simply clear-cut their lots without regard to surrounding communities, ecological impact or aesthetics. Someone building a new development could come in and clear out every longleaf pine on the lot because it “interferes with a construction or renovation project.” And assuming the developer plants anything back, it would be saplings.
This is yet another ham-handed attempt by the “conservative” General Assembly to strip even more control from local governments.
“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,” the state’s League of Municipalities says.
But that is not the care of The More-Ax, who does not speak for the trees. No, he stumps for “private property rights” — “stump” being the operative word here.
“But now,” says the Once-ler in The Lorax, “now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”