News Story

Permits To Cut Your Own Trees? Fast-Moving Bill Says ‘Not Anymore’

Local governments could not ban tree removal on private, non-residential property

Lawmakers are rushing to pass and send to the governor scores of bills before a post-election legislative session ends on Dec. 20. One of those bills would prohibit local governments from telling owners of commercial property that they can’t remove trees on their own land. The measure passed the Senate on Nov. 29 after being introduced just 21 days earlier, and is now before the House Committee on Local Government.

Sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, Senate Bill 1188 would prohibit officials from restricting property owners’ ability to remove vegetation from their land, cut down trees or trim them. Also preempted would be requiring a land owner to get a permit or permission in advance to remove trees.

Local officials also could not order landowners to plant trees to replace the ones cut down (dubbed “mitigation”), and could not impose fees or fines for tree removal. This would not apply to property zoned for residential use, and there would be exceptions for large “heritage” trees, defined as ones above a specified diameter depending on the species.

The legislation is a response to a fine of more than $400,000 imposed on two Canton Township brothers who removed trees from their non-residential property with the goal of using it as a Christmas tree farm.

Called the Vegetation Removal Preemption Act, the bill seeks to keep local tree removal ordinances focused on heritage trees and residential areas, Casperson says.

The Michigan Municipal League opposes the bill, saying it would “void reasonable local regulations put in place to protect the quality of life and property values of all residents and businesses.” The league says that the bill would “undermine a municipality’s ability to address local matters of concern and importance within their community” and would raise costs to taxpayers.

In its opposition to the bill, the league posted a graphic that claimed each tree has a value of $193,250. The graphic said that the $193,250 figure was determined by professor T.M. Das of the University of Calcutta. The graphic claims a tree that lives 50 years will generate $31,250 worth of oxygen and $62,000 worth of air pollution control, increase soil fertility by $31,240, recycle $37,500 of water and provide a home for animals, valued at $31,250. That $193,250 doesn’t include the value of fruits, lumber and beauty derived from the tree.

Casperson said, “The idea that if you decide to cut a tree on land you own you have to pay for it again – to the local government, no less – is preposterous. It’s unfair, and it potentially raises a legal question.”

The bill likely has two big fans in Gary and Matt Percy, the Wayne County landowners who were socked by Canton Township with a $450,000 levy for cutting down trees on their property. The 16-acre parcel is adjacent to the trucking firm the Percys own, in an area of the township zoned for industrial use.

Canton Township sued the Percys and imposed a fine between $412,000 and $446,625, an amount greater than the property’s value.

The Percys are not alone.

“Dozens of communities around Michigan have enacted local laws requiring residents and businesses to obtain permission before removing trees from their property and paying into a so-called ‘tree fund’ or replacing a tree if they choose to cut one down,” Casperson said. “These laws were sold to the public as a way to encourage tree-lined neighborhoods and to protect big, old trees that are community landmarks. However, these ordinances are often written loosely enough to allow for abuse. Nobody is arguing the value of tree-lined neighborhood streets, but in some communities, the ‘tree police’ use these ordinances to harass property owners and fill local coffers.”

Michigan business and property owners need reasonable legal protection, Casperson added.

The Pacific Legal Foundation is advocating for Michigan landowners in a different property rights case. Chris Kieser, an attorney for the foundation, has written that Casperson’s bill “would strengthen property rights in Michigan. Property owners, not local governments, own the trees located on private property.”