Opinion | C’mon, Michigan. Don’t get hysterical about ‘tree police’ bill

Tom Casperson is a Republican state senator from Escanaba.

Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

Let’s put ‘tree police’ in proper perspective

I recently sponsored legislation, Senate Bill 1188, that attempts to strike a better balance between local government authority and private-property rights around the state.

Our state includes more than 1,700 local units of government - cities, townships and villages. A small handful of them, less than 10 percent, have an ordinance that allows them to regulate trees on private property.

Think about that for a moment. Residents and businesses in certain communities are forced to pay their local government for something they already own. These communities don’t pay or credit their residents and businesses for planting more trees. But if you want to remove a tree, they require you to plant another to their specifications or pay hundreds of dollars per tree to remove them.

On its face, this is simply unfair, undemocratic and unscientific. We heard in Senate testimony from an arborist who noted that many unmanaged woodlots get overrun with invasive trees and vegetation. Sometimes, the smartest remedy is removing trees to keep a forest healthy.

Environmental groups and local government interests testified that this kind of local ordinance is a critical tool for managing stormwater, light pollution, noise pollution, carbon, aesthetics and community development, and even their ability to meet state and federal environmental laws. We heard of the possible dire consequences of this measure - construction projects rising in cost or being denied as local governments are unable to stipulate trees in place to create green barriers and filters.

But all of these arguments ring hollow when you stop to consider that more than 90 percent of Michigan communities accomplish all these ends without local tree removal ordinances - through mutual agreements and incentives, not fees and fines.

Our concern is that, ultimately, local tree removal ordinances are simply a way for local government to maintain an unfair level of control over residents and fill local coffers. The idea is simple: When you buy a piece of land, you pay for every asset on that land, including the trees.

Why should you have to pay the local unit of government if you choose to remove your own trees?

We do not argue against the benefits of trees. They are important throughout a community. But there are other ways for local units of government to provide incentives for residents, businesses and farmers to plant more of them.

The practice of a few local governments squeezing their people over how they manage trees on their land flies in the face of one of our most fundamental American rights - private property.

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Wed, 12/12/2018 - 8:42am

Thank you, Mr. Casperson. Government of any flavor just keeps looking for ways to reach deeper into the pockets of private citizens.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 1:25pm

I want to thank you Senator Casperson for having the courage to see this as it is and standing as you should, on the side of common sense.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 8:58am

I disagree. If Mr. Casperson had been born in 1850 in the Wild West, his ideas might fit right in. But in our populous, interconnected world, I have to live with the messes you create, and you have to live with mine. We all have to breathe the same air, drink from the same earthly supply of water, and eat food produced someplace on the planet. If Mr. Casperson doesn't understand the critical role of trees in supplying the earth's oxygen - and the dangers of increasing deforestation - he should get at least an 8th-grade education in ecology.

As for whose role it should be to regulate environmental issues, our state legislature might have done a fine job if it hadn't been so horrifically gerrymandered. That will change in the near future. In the meantime, I'm grateful for the action of local communities that protect the environment.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 10:39am

Nothing against trees but from what I've read there are more trees growing in North America today that when the Pilgrims landed and definitely more than there were 125 years ago. They're just probably not as big!

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 1:37pm

Dude, go hug a tree. Think, please try to think. You can have ALL of the trees that YOU want on YOUR property. BUT, YOU do NOT have the right to tell me that I have to maintain trees on MY property. BUT lets get to the meat and potatoes of this. Canton township does not own the trees. Period. Next, 37 out of 1700 communities are accomplishing all that they need to accomplish without forcing businesses to give them money (pay to play) to do business in their community. That is less than 3 percent. WOW!!!! And Canton, Bloomfield and Ann Arbor can not survive without their Extortion Ordinance?????? Please explain how that makes any sense.

P McKiernan
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 9:19am

This is to downplay the law breaking by the brothers in canton. He tries to justify it by saying that clearing is needed to keep a forest healthy, but that's not what they were doing. They were wanting to cement over the land for trucks they own, and trying not to get caught doing it, nor working with township and mdeq to avoid the tributary drain they cleared.

GOP touts local control, why are they trying to take that away now? Is local control only important when it suits what they want in a campaign speech? If you don't like community laws, work to change them, negotiate, or move, but don't break them for your own selfish interests in secret, and then claim an ordinance isn't just when you're done breaking the law.
What damage did the brothers cause downstream of the drain? What is the MDEQ opinion?

Arlene Clark
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 12:37pm

Indeed P. McKiernan--how DO the Republicans justify interfering in the local control they'd support, for these few special 10% of our communities? Bogles the mind. Machiavellian they are.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 1:08am


You do realize that all local entities exist because of the Legislature authorized them, thus they have the authority to dissolve all local governments. If they have that authority then they have the authority to control the local government actions. In my town we have zonely laws established and restricted by the State Legislature, our community had a voted to override the zonely laws and change the zoning for one piece of property, the courts rule that this was unlawful and validated the State's authority over the City, so even the courts have established the rule of law and state authority.

Leander Richmond
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 1:49pm

Damage to the drain? None. Absolutely NONE. Why not go to the Canton and say "Guys, I think that this tree ordinance thing is unfair and unconstitutional"? Their response would have been "Well, you can file a lawsuit" or "We vetted this in a meeting. Can you imaging going in and saying "Guys, I believe that this tree ordinance is over reaching and illegal and we should do away with it". (Laughing right now) Have you any experience in trying to deal with these people? I do. A LOT. They do what they want, when they want and I can prove that they don't care about laws when they do their own shyt. I have proof. So their would be this costly legal battle to correct a fight that shouldn't be fought. But WHY is canton hanging on so dearly to this??????? BECAUSE IT IS SO LUCRITIVE!!!!!!!!!!! They don't give a flying prostitute about the trees, this as all about the money that they can make on this and if you pull your head out of the donkeys but and look at this for what it is, then you to will see the truth. This is not a party issue, this is a people and businesses issue. In 2017, Canton was running a balance of $589,278 in its tree fund? They have also not provided a portion of my foia where in I requested a copy of all payments into and out of the tree fund. I got an excel sheet with 10 entries, since 2008. There are a lot of questions to be answered that would even validate the necessity of this fund but again, this legislation is on the right path to de-victimizing potential developers.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 3:48pm

The citizens should be able to run their city as they see fit. You need to research an area before you buy the land to understand what you are getting yourself into.

Leander Richmond
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 10:39am

YOU need to research. It is not the tree ordinance that is the problem but the manner in which it is being enforced. The township can require as many trees as they want, where they can explain a necessity, during the development portion. What is illegal and wrong is the fact that they think that they should be paid for the trees. BUT they are not calling it a fine or punishment. They are FORCING you to ELECT to CONTRIBUTE to their tree fund. $470,000 OH and it started at $707,000. How do you not see the problem with that process? If you want to clear your property, it is your right. When you develop it, the township has the opportunity for input as it relates to trees. This method is criminal.

Thomas E Graham
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 1:05pm

Kind of like when the Township forces you to "ELECT" to connect to municipal water when your well needs to be re-drilled.

P McKiernan
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 7:34pm

Unless you're an environmental engineer with intricate knowledge of all twp drains and flows, you DO NOT have the expertise to say drains and neighborhoods downstream are not affected.

P McKiernan
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 7:08pm

They got caught breaking the ordinances and then said they were going to grow Christmas trees to soften the public relations blow on their being above the law. ..And Breaking zoning ordinances they were well aware of, while they were at it. They started out saying they were going to grow corn after they got caught, only to find out that they couldn't change zoning to agricultural, they then jumped to Christmas trees.
They got caught in not working within the law and with township officials to mitigate..they could care less about community, and only what they wanted above others. Their wants above rule of law and community.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 9:31am

"C’mon, Michigan. Don’t get hysterical about ‘tree police’ bill"

Dear Mr. Casperson,
Such childishness and disrespect. The title of your column reminds of when President Trump went to Puerto Rico and threw rolls of paper towel from the podium to people who had just been devastated by a hurricane.
My suggestion is all of the current legislature do some serious self reflection and begin to act like adults, with respect for all people of Michigan. Michiganders have had it with current state government, in case you haven't noticed.

Joel Kurth
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 12:14pm

Hi Bernadette: Thanks for reading. To be clear, Tom Casperson did not write the headline. Like other guest pieces, it was written by Bridge editors.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 8:26pm

Thank you Joel for letting me know this, I would assume the author has some say in it? I find the headline patronizing, like our legislature, so my comment stands.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 9:43am

We urgently need a citizen's proposal that does
(1) requires at least a 2/3rds majority before the state legislature can invalidate a local law.
(2) and within 2 years every state law that does not have this 2/3rds majority will sunset.
There maybe some local laws that have to be invalidated but they should be few and far between and not left up to a gerrymandered state legislature.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 11:03am

In 2000 we didn't have a gerrymandered legislature of ideological partisans.

Leander Richmond
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 1:52pm

Link is broken.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 10:31am

Great idea! Why stop with just laws? Put a sunset on every program, agency, board, department etc etc. Give law makers the chance to re-evaluate the effectiveness what they set loose before re-authorizing it. Things would likely look very different. Or did you only mean the things you don't like?

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 9:47am

While I understand the need for a balance of private versus public rights, the view expressed by Mr. Casperson expresses the belief that State Government is better off making these decisions than local government. Many of the communities referred to having thriving business and residential sectors, and have a large percentage of younger workers as compared to other parts of the State. These ordinances protecting the nature of the community have been in place for many years, in some cases over 30.

It just doesn't make sense to remove local controls that have helped build very successful communities. Especially when the removal is sponsored by people who are voted out of office and have no consequences for their actions. Let's protect the future of thriving Michigan communities and start looking at the long term.

Leander Richmond
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 1:56pm

Whenever I hear this, I laugh. You do realize that the local gov'ts actually get their authority, permissions and control from the state, right? Like. . . . . . . you realize that this is EXACTLY what is supposed to happen. You don't want state gov control imposed on local gov but you want local gov to have supreme control over you??????? Am I understanding you correctly? Does this concept even need discussing?

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 7:48pm

I understand your point, yes local government authority comes from the State. However, when local authority is working (strong residential & business environment ) why remove a tool that is working to build a strong community that is good for the community and the State?

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 9:56am

I appreciate your point of view. Teh issue is not managing our forests, but rather if it is appropriate for Lansing to tell the democratically elected officials of Ann Arbor, East Lansing , Traverse City, etc. whether they may or may not have a tree ordinance. If these communities have determined that they wish to regulate tree removal, why is it that the Legislature in Lansing should prohibit them from doing so? You describe tree ordinances as "undemocratic". What's undemocratic is a legislator from Escanaba telling the elected officials of Ann Arbor what they may or may not do. If these types of ordinances are illegal or confiscatory, those determinations will be made by the courts, not the legislature.

Leander Richmond
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 2:09pm

Robert, based on your description, we should seal the constitution away in a glass case right along side of the declaration of independence as a dated concept not worthy of consideration. This is exactly our process. "STATE representative". According to your statement, why in the hell do they even need to go to Lansing. So do you not want a say in the Pipeline through the straits of Mackinaw? I mean........

Barry LaRue
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 11:51am

If the legislature actually represented the voters in the proper ratio I might agree with Senator Casperson, but given gerrymandered districts and the fact that this legislation is being rammed thru during a lame duck session I don't buy his argument. Besides, historically, conservative thinking would generally want to give people at the local level more of a say than remote "big government" that is removed from day to day effects of their decisions.

Leander Richmond
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 2:01pm

Barry, I'd like to ask you a few question, if I may. Who owns the trees? What is this bill about? Do you think it fair that a local government can PROFIT hundreds of thousands of dollars from a developer trying to build in their community. I have seen this behavior before in a movie where this fat dude had a cat on his lap and he kept rubbing his chin. This bill is not about what Canton and the rest have made it about, it is about weather a local community should be able to profit in this manner. That's all. That's it. That is the core and real and ONLY issue with this. All of the other issues relating to this belong in a court of law.

George Magro
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 12:28pm

Hi Tom. I believe your take on Townships (and others) just implementing a tree ordinance just to fill their coffers is nothing more than a justification for more big government control. You seem to have lost touch with the realities of managing and maintaining a community. I live in Milford and people come here because of what our community is and has remained – rural and beautiful. Your position has opened the door to developers coming in and clear cutting a development and “planting” houses and grass. With your current position they will be able to continue to do so and as a community we will have no ability to maintain our rural character. You are clearly being over influenced by big developers and have no concern about the quality of life in townships like ours. I couldn’t disagree with you more. You are wrong on this issue. It is not driven by hysteria. It is not driven by fear. It designed to protect the beauty of our township. It certainly is not about money.

Leander Richmond
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 2:15pm

So you were able to accomplish EVERYTHING that you listed here WITHOUT a tree ordinance?????

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 3:10pm

The Senator notes that, "A small handful of them (communities), less than 10 percent, have an ordinance that allows them to regulate trees on private property."

So if so few communities have these ordinances why is the Senator asking legislators to waste their time and our tax dollars dealing with this issue? If legislators have so much time that they can focus on legislation that addresses someone's pet peeve, a part-time legislature may be a good idea. Let the communities change their own ordinances if they find them so oppressive.

Leander Richmond
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 10:46am

I've been holding my had up and would like to answer this question. Because it is their job. The point that he made is for the protection of ALL in the state. IF 1600 other communities are able to thrive without this type of an ordinance (WHICH IS ABUSIVE) then why does Canton, Bloomfield, Ann Arbor and others need such an ordinance? Point two, "Should they wait and allow the identified abuse to spread to a statewide level? Is that really YOUR solution to problem solving? Wait until the problem is widespread?

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 4:00pm

The Lord Farkwads of Michigan. No Ogars!!! No Fairy Tail Creatures. You're ruining my perfect little town. Canton has 3 dumps in it. It is so over run with trees that there is no place to put any more trees. You can't drive down a street and see any of the businesses, except on Ford road. There is a KFC on Michigan Ave at Sheldon that you can't even see from the road because the front is mostly blocked by trees. Canton is FULL of these examples of the overtreeing that is going on. Canton is not short on trees and they do not need to be paid for the trees. Force as many as you want into a site plan and allow the rest to be gone but you do not need to profit from it. This is my ONLY problem with this ordinance. I looked at the historical images of the Walmart on Mich Ave and I counted over 100 trees incorporated into the development. The rest should just be forgiven in the name of development. What's to stop them from valuing grass in the same manner? Nothing if not this legislation.

P McKiernan
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 7:14pm

Residents and businesses must work within local govt laws to change laws, rather than breaking laws and calling foul and lying when caught.

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 9:46pm

So the remedy for citizens of local governments with overzealous tree regulations is to approach, petition or protest the local body and request change at the local level. Why does the State have an interest in preventing localities from governing in their own jurisdictions -- and allowing local citizens from appropriately engaging with their own local governments?
As a logging truck operator, I find Mr Casperson's explation disinguenuous.

Leander Richmond
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 10:52am

Local gov't????? Businesses have no vote or say in rule making in their community. The citizens of the community make a rule that possibly violates a few constitutional laws and you think that they are going to change that on a simple request? This is the very process. Perhaps you agree too that an 82 year old couple with a very small portion of their land deemed wetland and fined $6,000 which they can not afford, should loose their home when the regulation clearly has errors that need attention. These things happen here and around the country everyday. State gov't is here to protect us from ourselves (local gov't). I'm really having a hard time with why you guys don't get that.