Yesterday’s New York Times reported on “a growing movement, from suburban Washington to Los Angeles, to protect mature urban trees — and in some communities, make it a crime to chop them down.” Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, for example, was recently fined $37,000 for removing 130 view-obstructing trees on his riverfront estate, and the Montgomery County City Council, upset over Snyder’s action, has now amended a local ordinance to make Snyder’s crime punishable by up to six months in jail.
While Snyder’s misconduct was clear-cutting, a number of localities are criminalizing the removal of single trees. In San Francisco, for example, the Board of Supervisors will have authority to designate certain trees as landmarks, and the owners of those trees will not be permitted to remove them. Under a proposed Los Angeles ordinance, trees that are of designated species (native oak, black walnut, California sycamore, or bay laurel) and reach a certain size (4 inches in diameter) will automatically be protected.
What about compensation for the landowner who finds her property value diminished because city residents want to look at her tree? There’s not any, of course. Why would a city pay for what it can steal?
Putting aside the obvious injustice here (i.e., individual landowners are being forced to bear all the costs of a public good), this seems like a stupid way to protect trees. Imagine the fate of the poor native oak in Los Angeles that manages to reach 3.75 inches in diameter. If its owner thinks there’s any chance the property on which the tree is located might be developable sometime in the future, that tree’s days are numbered. In San Francisco, rational property owners are undoubtedly scouring their land for handsome trees that city planners might soon try to appropriate. Better get ’em down before the Board of Supervisors comes a-knockin’!
This is not a new problem, of course. The so-called “shoot, shovel, and shut-up” syndrome has long plagued the Endangered Species Act, which precludes development of private property that may be habitat of a listed species. Here, though, the perverse incentives seem even stronger. It’s fairly difficult for landowners to make preemptive efforts to rid themselves of endangered species. (Landowners usually won’t know the critters are a problem until they are listed, and at that point, destroying an individual creature or its habitat can lead to punishment.) With mature trees, by contrast, landowners can protect their property rights, without breaking the law, simply by ensuring that their trees never get big enough to merit protection.
I’m all for big trees. So are lots of other folks. As the Times reported, “[a] study by the University of Washington even found that people shopped longer and more often in tree-lined retail areas and spent about 12 percent more money.” Findings like that suggest that private markets will produce big trees.
But what about those gorgeous old trees that have the misfortune of being owned by someone who doesn’t appreciate their magnificence? Shouldn’t citizens be able to stop the owner from chopping them down? Maybe. But if the public demands the tree, the public should pay for it by compensating the landowner for the loss in property value occasioned by the land use restriction. This is only fair. It’s also the only way to ensure that landowners allow the trees on their property to become magnificent.