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

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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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