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From the Forum – Special Tree Permitting Shenanigans?

by Prince Of Petworth November 19, 2015 at 2:05 pm 35 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user bajidc

Special Tree Permitting Shenanigans?

“I need to have a giant tree taken down on my property, and I’ve gone through the steps on TOPS to get the Special Tree Permit to have it removed. The DC Code says that you need to either:

A) pay $35 per inch of circumference of the tree that’s coming down;
B) aver that you will plant saplings sufficient to equal or exceed the circumference of the removed tree; or
C) a combination of A) and B) to equal the circumference of the removed tree.

However, the TOPS website and personnel when you call say that “planting will not be permitted” and you have to pay. I said “that’s not what it says in the DC Code,” and she said “yeah, someone needs to change that.” Is it possible they don’t understand how laws work? The Code is the law, how can they decide not to follow it? I’m going to reach out to my Council Member, but has anyone else encountered this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”

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  • Steve F

    A special tree is at least 55 inches in circumference, so at minimum you are paying a $2000 permit to remove it. Say you plant a 1″ caliper tree to replace it – that gives you about 3″ circumference so you save I guess $100 from your removal permit cost. Of course that 1″ caliper tree probably costs ~$100…

    • Philippe Lecheval

      $100? That’s crazy. You can go out into the woods and dig up saplings that would otherwise be choked out by larger trees for free. Or order them online for far less than $100.

      • transplanted

        You’re right, plus you can get reimbursed for the price of new trees through DDOE, if you buy smart and get covered species.

  • I got this

    Not related to planting replacement trees however….

    Is the tree causing damage to property or structures? I was able to pay a structural engineer (~$250) to examine my retaining wall (You didn’t need an engineering degree to tell that the wall was severely damaged) who concluded that the pressure from the tree roots caused the wall to fail. This report was submitted to the city Arborist who then classified the tree as “hazardous” and the permitting fee was waived and the tree was subsequently removed.

    • transplanted

      It’s not causing damage to the property (yet: it’s very close to the neighbor’s windows), but yes to a structure (the shared fence). But the city sent an arborist and he deemed it healthy, which made it automatically not hazardous. I’m fine paying the fee, to the extent it is necessary; I agree with the goal of keeping the District “treed”. I just don’t like the fact that they’re trying to make me pay more than I’m required to by law — I’m planning on planting at least 6 trees once this one is gone!

  • Anon

    Is the tree dead or dying? An arborist who did some work on one of our trees mentioned that the fee either doesn’t apply or can be waived if the tree is dead or well on its way to being dead. No clue whether that’s accurate.

    • transplanted

      That is true, but this one isn’t.

      • whiteshorts

        And I’m guessing it’s not one of the invasive species that is exempt?

        • transplanted


      • Marty

        you can make it true if you are willing to wait a few years.

  • shaw

    Sadly, I have frequently encountered DC agencies and city employees who seem to think a duly passed law is a “suggestion” or that they can select the option they like the most from the options proscribed in the law as a remedy or as a list of exceptions like they’re ordering take out. Even going to the head of the relevant agency, I have actually been told, flat out, “we are only accepting options 2 & 5 from the DC Code. If you wish to use 1, 3 or 4, you will need to sue us to make us comply”. And you wonder why everyone hates City Hall…

    I’d suggest taking the case to the public – one of those investigative reporters from a local news channel or some such. Those seem to be the only way to get results sometimes. Or, given the amount of money, file a lawsuit in small claims court (cheap to file and you can represent yourself) and ask a judge to force the agency to comply with the law. That has the added bonus of embarrassing them, which sounds justified here.

    • transplanted

      Well at least it’s not just me, but this is crazy. Hopefully getting a call from my Councilmember’s office will be enough; I don’t really want to go to the news or to court.

    • anon

      You can’t use small claims court in this way. Your asking the court to order the agency to do something, got to go to regular superior court, which is its own nightmare.

      • Shaw

        The loophole to use small claims is to make it monetary – seek financial reimbursement for the damages caused by not following the law.

  • Anonymous

    How hard would it be for you to take this down on a weekend, grind the stump down, and cover with dirt / grass? Do you have neighbors that are gunning for you?
    I’ve heard that DC doesn’t even bother enforcing this provision…

    • transplanted

      My understanding is that tree services won’t take it down without a permit, and it’s too big to do myself. The neighbors are on our side; they’re mostly happy that we’re taking the lead on getting rid of it. But since I’m already on DDOT’s radar (filed for the permit), I worry that even if I did find an amenable service, I could get caught trying to work outside the bureaucracy. And the fine for noncompliance is $100/inch (this tree is 106 inches, so … can’t chance it).

      • Anonymous

        Well, there are Tree Services and guys at home depot who will chop it up and haul it off real quick. I think you’re giving the bureaucracy too much credit for being on top of things. But if you’re looking for peace of mind in that regard then I think you’ve answered your own question – you’re stuck with their answer.

        • transplanted

          Guys at home depot aren’t bonded and insured, and a tree of this size could potentially destroy a neighbor’s house if it’s not taken down correctly. But I’m certainly not going to pay the portion of the fine I don’t owe; I’m just crowdsourcing here to find the least-worst option for getting the DDOT to comply with the law. I really hope it doesn’t come down to going to the local news. :/

      • I Dont Get It

        DDOT has a Twitter account. As some of noted here before some DC agencies are very responsive to tweets.

        • transplanted

          Solid suggestion; thank you.

      • Marty

        we had a legit tree service (out of VA, I think) do our tree a couple of years ago. Someone told us it was an invasive species (or non-desirable, or whatever they call it) and that was good enough for the company. They were happy with my $1k, and i was happy with no tree in my back yard.

        • transplanted

          Can you give me the name of the service? I’ll call it “Plan B.”

          • Marty

            we actually used two – one for trimming, and one for the stump grinding (we thought we could do it ourselves…ha!)
            Unfortunately, i don’t recall which did which:



          • Marty

            I should add that the tree was likely a undesirable tree, which they may have independently determined on their own. I don’t want to suggest that they will necessarily take down any and every tree without a permit. they just didn’t say Boo with respect to our specific tree.

  • anon

    I think you would have a hard time forcing them to accept your planing tree instead of paying the fee. They would argue that there is no practical way to do this. You say it is a 106 in tree. If, and I am being generous, you bought or offered to purchase for the city 10 inch trees, that would be 11 trees (rounding). Where would they be planted? The city could just say they don’t currently have a place to put such tree and I am guessing you don’t want 10 trees on your property. I also think that, since you would certainly be limited to approved species, you might not even save any money.

    Also, to clarify, this is a city tree correct? I believe these rules only apply to city owned trees, not those on private property.

    • Transplanteds’ Life partner

      OPs boyfriend. Its on private property.

    • transplanted

      I don’t understand your point. I’m not looking to force them to accept my planting a tree, just asking them to follow the law. There is a form for submitting your sapling planting plan, where you show them exactly where the trees are going in, and then you have a year to carry out the plan. All of the replacement trees will be on our property, where the big one is coming out (yes, we do want them all, though it won’t be 10). Nope, it’s not a city tree, and yes, the special tree permit rules do apply to trees on private property (such as this one).

  • Tinker Taylor

    WWCDSD – What Would Chainsaw Dan Snyder Do?

    I jest, as OP seems far to responsible to follow that example.

  • First, reach out to the head of the agency IN WRITING. On paper is better, but email will suffice if you have the person’s direct address as opposed to a general comment address. Provide as much detail as possible to substantiate your call and the person(s) you dealt with. That *should* get them to write back with the correct information that you can use.

    If that doesn’t work, be sure to contact your council member’s office to lodge a complaint. Should be able to do that online, by email, or by postal letter.

    If you still don’t get satisfaction, contact Russ Ptacek at WUSA, Tisha Thompson at NBC4, or the folks at WJLA or Fox5. But, before you’ll get the reporters’ interest, you must have solid documentation of your travails.

  • llucas

    I suggest you contact Casey Trees. They will help you with the DC law and may also help you plant new trees. They also offer rebates for trees you plant.

  • Contact DC Urban Forestry. They are very helpfu, and will be able to tell you your options.

  • crin

    The DDOT staff that man the TOPS permit system are not very bright. There I said it. They’re simply there to process applications as fast as possible so management can brag about their end of year numbers. Another problem with DDOT reviewers and inspectors is that they themselves often can’t find the property line on a project or tell the difference between public space and private space. I digress, but nothing out of DDOT surprises me. They chronically don’t know their own regulations. There’s a good chance that they’re just winging the denial, but a very small chance they just explained their denial poorly. On the latter explanation, the only thing that I can think of is that maybe you submitted a tree planting plan that had the trees so dense and grouped together that they will strangle each other and die. If that’s the case, maybe the better answer you should have gotten is that your planting plan is unfeasible or not a realistic replacement of the lost tree and therefor unacceptable. But again, just a guess to be polite and not a total crank.

    • transplanted

      I haven’t submitted a plan because even though the automatic response from the system is that the next step is for me to “upload your sapling planting plan”, they say they aren’t accepting them because they don’t allow planting in lieu of (or conjunction with) payment. I specifically mentioned that that was against the Code and she said she knew, but assumed the Code would be changed “eventually” to match what they’re doing. So it’s not so much a communication error as a decision on their part to break the law (it is also on the TOPS system page for Special Tree Permits – “planting will not be permitted”). I’m really hoping that just getting my Councilmember involved will be enough to move this forward without undue fuss.

      • annonny

        Call your councilmember and if that doesn’t help figure out who is most at risk of losing their at-large seat (Vincent Orange?) and then call them. The only time I’ve had a councilman’s office be helpful was when they were about to be voted out of office (I’m talking about you, Jim Graham).

  • navyard

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