In Takoma Park, trees triumph over solar panels
City Council will not alter tree ordinance to include tradeoffs
Takoma Park residents hoping to replace a tree with solar panels will find no tradeoff in the city's tree ordinance.
The Takoma Park City Council opposed changing the tree ordinance, which helps ensure such widespread benefits as reduced stormwater runoff and shade, to make exceptions for those looking to install environmentally friendly solar panels. Changing the ordinance was not up for a vote, but council members discussed whether to draft a resolution to change its existing law.
"I don't want to be in the position of encouraging certain things with tradeoffs," said Mayor Bruce Williams. "I'm always looking for win-win propositions, and I think once you take down a large tree for whatever reason, you can't go back. It takes decades, generations, to get back there, and I want to do everything that we can to encourage keeping the trees that we have."
Under the current ordinance, residents must provide a replacement if they choose to remove a tree. A replacement may consist of planting trees within the city or paying a determined amount into the city's tree planting fund. Some residents argue that if they are installing solar panels in place of a tree, they should not have to plant as many new trees or pay as much money to the tree planting fund because solar panels are environmentally friendly.
"I haven't heard anything that convinces me that we need to change the tree ordinance to accommodate solar panels," said Councilwoman Colleen Clay (Ward 2) at Tuesday's meeting.
Providing tradeoffs would create a slippery slope, said Councilman Fred Schultz (Ward 6) and would further complicate the ordinance.
"We call this tree city," he said. "We don't call it solar city. ... We ought to stick to what it is we do well. We grow good trees here that last 100 to 150 years that generate shade and beauty."
Those particularly enamored with solar panels should consider moving upcounty, where farmland is being converted into townhomes, Schultz said.
The debate about tradeoffs first came to light when Takoma Park residents Patrick and Shannon Earle, eager to cut down a silver maple in their front yard that would overshadow future solar panels on their roof, found themselves running afoul of the city's notoriously strict tree-protection ordinance in July.
The Earles wanted to remove a decades-old silver maple growing in front of their Grant Avenue home. Patrick Earle has argued, among other things, that the tree is rotting internally and will soon present a safety hazard. But City Arborist Todd Bolton said the maple is far from dead.
Because the tree in question is defined by the city's code as an urban forest tree it measures more than 24 inches in circumference at a height of four feet from the ground it falls under the ordinance's protection, according to the city's code.
And it appears that the city council falls on the side of the ordinance.
"My sense is that we're not interested in changing the tree ordinance in this way," Williams said.
But Earle said he was displeased with the council's decision.
"The council's concerns sadly seem to end at the city limits," Earle said in an e-mail to The Gazette. "By not amending the code, they have placed the city in the odd position of last place behind the county, state and federal governments - all of which currently encourage solar with tax credits - in promoting clean, renewable energy."
Without solar panels, residents are using power from Pepco, which does not have the same environmental benefits, Earle said.
Annually, the solar panels on Earle's property will produce the carbon offset equivalent of 150 trees, Earle said.
"So for us, removing the one, aging, hollow tree was well worth it," he said. "If a usually progressive community such as Takoma Park does not yet have the resolve to make small sacrifices to support local renewable energy, how can we can seriously address the threat of climate change as a society," he said.