Heritage Trees

What Hill Homeowners Must Know

Healthy-looking trees can be rotten and hollow inside, as seen in this stack of cut wood. Photo: Rindy O’Brien

On April 18, 2017, Matthew McClanahan was killed on the US Capitol grounds when a large portion of a tree fell on him. Roads around First Street and Independence Avenue were closed for hours as the branches were removed and the tree was inspected by staff of the Architect of the Capitol. Had this happened during a thunderstorm it might not have been so surprising, but the tree went down on a lovely spring morning.

Big trees contribute so much to our Capitol Hill neighborhood. They seem to take care of themselves, but arborists point out that trees can look perfectly healthy on the outside yet have a rotten core. The clay soil of Capitol Hill also creates environmental barriers for establishing a good root system, making it more likely for a tree to topple over with wind and weather.

The Tree Canopy Protection Amendment Act of 2015 went into effect last July. It amends the law passed in 2002 known as the Urban Forest Preservation Act. The new law raises the fines for unlawful tree removal from $100 to no less than $300 per circumference inch. In simple math, if you cut down a tree that has 50-inch circumference you could be fined $15,000. 

Casey Trees, a DC-based nonprofit, reports the city’s tree cover has shrunk to 36 percent, down from the 50 percent peak in the 1950s. Trees help clean the air; lower energy costs, provide shade, and beautify our neighborhoods. Real estate agents on Capitol Hill agree that the mature trees greatly increase the value of Hill homes.

As the new law demonstrates, the city is taking its trees seriously. The new regulations expand protection to more trees by establishing the category of Special Tree. A Special Tree has a circumference between 44 and 100 inches. A tree that is over 100 inches is designated a Heritage Tree and can only be removed if it is deemed hazardous or is a species (ailanthus, mulberry, or Norway maple) deemed appropriate for removal by the city.

The Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) is housed in the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and is the principal agency that works to restore the tree canopy. Earl Eutsler has worked with the UFA for more than 12 years and is one of five arborists on the staff. He is enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with homeowners to mitigate removal of trees. “I really hope that property owners see us as a resource to help them maintain their trees and not as an agency trying to penalize them. Trees really bring so much value to homeowners and the community at large,” explains Eutsler. 

New tools are making it easier to know where the city’s bigger trees are. Casey Trees did a very helpful inventory of street trees a few years ago, but it did not detail trees on private property. New remote sensing is helping UFA identify where the big trees are. “We also have our staff working in zones so that they get to know certain neighborhoods and keep an eye out on what is happening to the trees,” says Eutsler.

What Do I Do with a Special Tree?

Jennifer Smith Salaj, a certified arborist with Branches Tree Experts Co., says that the UFA is active in making sure that property owners have the required permits to remove trees, and in protecting trees during adjacent construction. If you have a tree that meets the Heritage or Special Tree designation, it is important to work with a company to evaluate and document your tree’s health. Documentation of the care is also important if you need to remove the tree and want to avoid being fined.

Salaj says that Branches Tree Experts begins each inspection with a visual evaluation. A tree may have suffered a wound years ago that is now causing it to decline. “We cannot always see what is going on,” says Salaj. “We sometimes have to take samples to see what is occurring inside the tree.” Trees need to be pruned to reduce deadwood and to make sure the roots are getting optimal conditions. Mulching can be good, unless it is mounded, because trees should not be covered near the bottom. Fertilizing may be needed, but the soil should be tested for its pH to determine the acidity or alkalinity. 

Bill Shelton of Capitol Tree Care Inc. has more than 30 years of experience and is a certified arborist. “The law is creating a new kind of awareness and perspective about trees that is really important in this day and age,” he says. He is being asked more often to inspect trees prior to home sales. If a buyer sees a large tree that doesn’t look good, they may want to find out what it will cost to remove it, which can climb to $20,000 or more depending on the size.

If a Special Tree needs to be removed, companies like Branches Tree Experts and Capitol Tree Care can help with the permit process. Once you submit the permit request online, the city will send an arborist to determine that the tree is dead. Eutsler says that permits are handled quickly and usually approved within 10 working days. If you remove a tree without the proper permit, the city will fine you.

If a tree stands near new construction, it may need a tree-protection zone to protect its roots. Salaj says her company helps homeowners set up the protection, hand-pruning roots or pruning for clearance by construction trucks. Often the tree zones are fenced around the tree and roots.

Heritage Trees Are Even More Special

“There are very few Heritage trees,” says Eutsler, “but they really deserve the extraordinary regulations they have been granted.” He advises that if you have a Heritage Tree, there is really no way to get rid of it unless it is hazardous. Less than 5 percent of the Heritage trees in DC are in private yards. Many of the Special trees are in parks and the National Arboretum.

There are legal provisions for moving trees but they are stringent to ensure that the tree can be successfully transplanted. The city will inspect the tree for several years after the transplanting to make sure the tree survives. 

Heritage trees require a special permit for removal. If a Special or Heritage tree falls unexpectedly, Eutsler and Salaj agree that the best thing is to call 311, and you will be put into immediate contact with the UFA. “We have staff on duty to be able to provide homeowners help with such emergencies,” says Eutsler.

More Trees in Our Future

Councilmembers Charles Allen and Mary Cheh were the primary sponsors of the new tree protection law. As Allen noted at the time of passage, “Trees are so important to our quality of life, I think it’s crucial we find ways to protect our larger, older trees and expand our replanting efforts. If we’re going to meet our goal of increasing the District’s tree canopy to 40 percent by 2032, we have to do more now.” 

If you are lucky enough to reap the benefits of mature trees in your yard, you have a responsibility to keep them thriving. Call a tree expert with licensed arborists and get your tree inspected. Educate yourself through workshops conducted by Casey Trees and other conservation groups. If you have questions, call the UFA, whose staff is happy to speak to you. Not knowing before you damage a protected tree is no longer an excuse.

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Rindy O’Brien has been an advocate for trees for over 30 years through her work at the Wilderness Society and US National Arboretum. Contact her at rindyobrien@gmail.com.


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