News Story

Township Clear-Cuts Its Own Trees; Fines Property Owners $450k For Removing Theirs

Local firm would replace its trees with Christmas tree farm, Canton Township replaced its own with piles of dirt

Canton Township is currently seeking $450,000 from a pair of local landowners for removing trees from their property in alleged violation of a tree-protection ordinance. But the township itself appears to have flouted its ordinance over the last decade, when a 22-acre parcel of land it owns was clear-cut to make way for soil removed from a nearby landfill.

That’s according to Michael Pattwell, an attorney for Gary and Matt Percy. The brothers find themselves in the crosshairs of Canton Township enforcers after they cleared their own land for use as a Christmas tree farm. Pattwell says that land behind the township’s public works facility on Sheldon Road, which is in a mostly commercial and industrial-use district, was cleared. He cites multiple satellite images, documents and statements from members of tree-clearing crews that worked in the area in 2008 and in an additional location in the same parcel in 2017.

Canton Township planner Jeff Goulet, however, says those claims are inaccurate and based on flawed or misinterpreted information. A limited amount of tree removal was conducted at the public works site soon after the township acquired it in the late 1980s, he said. But according to Goulet, that was before the township enacted the ordinance in 1991.

“The photo labeled 2007 (referring to a Google Earth image that shows thick foliage on the site) is incorrect,” Goulet said. “The trees were gone long before that.”

Pattwell insists it is Goulet who is mistaken.

Multiple images from various sources depict the property at the rear of the public works facility to be heavily-treed before 2007, he said. After 2007, he added, the images all show the area to be denuded and replaced by large piles of dirt that were transported from the nearby Sauk Trail landfill, which was being expanded. Images also show, he said, that an additional 5-acre portion of the township’s land was covered with mature trees but then clear-cut between 2016 and 2017.

In a telephone interview Friday, Goulet said the ordinance had not been adopted when the land was cleared. Under the ordinance, private landowners must obtain official authorization for tree removal. It also mandates that landowners submit a plan for township approval to mitigate the removal of any trees by replanting, or pay $200 or more per tree into the township’s tree fund.

Canton Township attorney Kristin Kolb, in an email response to an inquiry from Michigan Capitol Confidential, said public works staff could not recall any mass tree removal on township property during the last 20 years.

But one of the contractors hired to perform tree removal on the township property (and who asked to not be identified) said in a telephone interview that he distinctly recalls working at the site in 2008, when “hundreds of trees 18-to-24-inch in diameter” were removed.

In any event, Kolb said, the township is not subject to its own ordinance. “Case law is very clear on this point,” she said.

And despite the legal reality, Canton Township adheres to the tree ordinance, she said.

“When Canton removes trees from its property for development, and to the extent that they are required to be replaced under the zoning ordinance, the township plants replacement trees,” Kolb said.

Pattwell said the claim is ridiculous.

“When local governments say the trees are critically important, they mean your trees, not theirs,” he said. “Canton defends their tree police ordinance as an utter necessity to the public good — trees being critical for stormwater management, pollution prevention — the list goes on. But — they don’t follow their own policies.”

Legislation generated in response to the dispute is pending at the Michigan Capitol. It would limit local government’s authority to extract payments for trees removed from private property.