Township’s Tree-Cutting Ban Violates Landowners’ Rights
Judge calls it an ‘unconstitutional regulatory taking’
Canton Township has a tree preservation ordinance that has been used to threaten local property owners with fines of up to $450,000 for cutting trees on their own land. Last week, however, a federal court in Detroit ruled it an unconstitutional taking of private property.
The April 23 decision came from U.S. District Court Judge George Steeh, who addressed Canton’s requirement that landowners either replace trees that are removed or make payments to a community tree fund. The requirement, he said, is so onerous that the cost of complying with it could exceed the value of the property itself and is not justified by its alleged contribution to the township’s quality of life.
“The (township) government action is to require a private property owner to maintain trees on its property for the benefit of the community at large. This is a burden that should be shared by the community as a whole,” Steeh wrote.
Hence, “the court finds that (the ordinance) goes too far and is an unconstitutional regulatory taking.”
Chance Weldon, an attorney for the Texas Public Policy Foundation who represented landowner Martin Powelson, said Steeh’s decision is a clear victory for property rights in Canton and elsewhere.
TPPF also represents the owners of a neighboring business that was hit with a $450,000 fine for clearing land it planned to use for growing Christmas trees. The case is pending in Wayne County Circuit Court.
Powelson’s company, FP Development, brought the federal lawsuit after township officials ordered him to cease tree removal on 24 acres zoned for industrial use. He had purchase the land to expand the operations of his adjoining sign company.
In 2018, Powelson hired a timber company to remove trees on the property and clear access to a clogged drain as a flood control measure.
The township subsequently determined that FP Development had illegally removed 159 regulated trees, including 14 so-called landmark trees (with trunks exceeding 24 inches in diameter).
In response to the lawsuit, Canton Township filed a counterclaim, asking for $47,898 in compensation for the felled trees. The township defended its ordinance as necessary to preserve beneficial natural features and to avoid the prospect of the area becoming “the next concrete jungle.”
Steeh, however, said U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires government officials to make a site-specific evaluation of the benefits of regulation, one that includes consideration of the financial burden it places on the property owner.
“It is not reasonable for FP (Development) to be required to keep his wooded property undeveloped, or pay an exorbitant price to replace trees, when he purchased property which was zoned industrial with the expectation that he could expand his adjacent sign business on that property,” Steeh wrote.
Canton Corporation Counsel Kristin Kolb declined to comment on the decision, saying in an email that township attorneys are in “the process of reviewing the 40-page opinion and its impact to determine next steps for Canton.”