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Montgomery looks to strengthen urban tree canopy

Trees are an important part of any urban environment, providing shade, oxygen, and even calming traffic. Of course, they're also great to look at. As a result, protecting and expanding Montgomery County's tree canopy has been a growing issue in recent months.

Photo by Jeff Tabaco on Flickr.

A study by the University of Vermont for the Montgomery County Planning Department found that while half of the county is covered by trees, the county's urban areas have a much smaller tree canopy.

Just 19% of White Flint is covered by trees, while downtown Silver Spring has a 14% tree canopy. The smallest tree canopy is in the Montgomery Hills business district south of Georgia Avenue and the Beltway, which has just 8% coverage. Urban areas should have at least a 25% tree canopy, planners say.

One of the best ways to expand our tree canopy in places like downtown Silver Spring or White Flint is by planting more street trees next to sidewalks and in medians. Trees can provide significant health benefits and can even be an economic windfall for places with more of them.

A 2001 survey of Wheaton residents found they overwhelmingly preferred streets with trees for downtown Wheaton. According to urban designer Dan Burden, spending between $250 and $600 to plant a tree can yield up to $90,000 in economic benefits for the surrounding area.

Studies show that street trees have health and economic benefits.

For decades, transportation planners saw street trees as a safety hazard because they blocked drivers' vision. For that reason, County Executive Ike Leggett actually recommended removing street trees from busy roads in 2008. However, we know now that trees can "reduce the 'optical width'" of a street, slowing drivers down and making it safer for everybody.

Today, there are multiple efforts to add more street trees in Montgomery County. This fall, the Planning Department introduced a program called Shades of Green that provides free shade trees and two years of care to eligible property owners in downtown Silver Spring, downtown Wheaton and Montgomery Hills. 30 trees have already been planted under the program in those three areas.

Nonprofit group Conservation Montgomery has been organizing tree plantings of their own. Last month, they teamed up with Casey Trees, a forestry organization based in the District, to plant in Montgomery Hills. They've also received grant money in partnership with fellow nonprofits Safe Silver Spring and Uno Granito de Arena to plant trees in Long Branch.

Pepco workers cut down trees on East-West Highway in Silver Spring. Photo by Gull.

Unfortunately, these efforts are undermined by poor maintenance of our existing tree canopy. After heavy storms last year, Pepco began trimming trees in earnest before falling branches could take down power lines. According to their website, Pepco uses nationally-recognized standards and practices for tree trimming, but residents complain they're being too aggressive, mangling trees and trespassing on private property.

Downtown Silver Spring resident Gull sent us some photos of Pepco workers cutting down trees along 16th Street and Spring Street last month. In an email, he called it a "serious quality of life issue" for him and his neighbors. "It's very easy to see into communities, houses and apartments that were once obscured from view," he wrote. "I see it as a big problem that instead of planting more trees in our urban areas, we're removing them and making above ground utilities the primary thing visible to us."

Last spring, County Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich drafted a bill that would set higher environmental standards for tree trimming and require power companies to ask homeowners' permission before doing any work on their property. However, the bill was deemed unconstitutional and set aside after the derecho storm in July brought down power lines and knocked out power to thousands of residents.

A felled tree next to a house under construction in Chevy Chase. Proposed legislation aims to help protect or replace trees like this.

Since then, the council has introduced two new pieces of legislation aimed at protecting trees. Bill 35-12 would require property owners cutting trees down on smaller lots to pay into a fund dedicated to replacing those trees. The county's Forest Conservation Law already requires this on lots over an acre in size. Another, Bill 41-12, would require a permit to do work in a public street that might damage a tree. They've set a public hearing later this month to hear testimony about both bills.

The legislation has support from Conservation Montgomery and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, but has gotten a lot of pushback from local home builders. Renewing Montgomery, a group of small home builders, argued that the original bill proposed last summer restricts the rights of property owners.

As our urban areas grow, there's an inevitable tension between the built environment and the natural environment. However, protecting our tree canopy has many benefits for people as well. Whether by planting new trees or preserving old ones, we can make our communities healthier, stronger and more prosperous.

The County Council will hold a public hearing on both bills Thursday, January 17 at 7:30pm at the Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. For more information and to sign up to testify, visit their website. You can also sign Conservation Montgomery's petition supporting both bills. And if you'd like to learn more about the tree canopy in your neighborhood, check out the Planning Department's tree canopy explorer.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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"restricts the rights of property owners."

oh please, cry me a river, building industry lobbyists.

if you want to live in a place where you have neighbors, or if you want to build in a place where there are neighbors, you have to take the fact that you are not an island unto yourself into consideration.

if you want "freedom" to do whatever you want, take your business to a wide-open field in north-central Nebraska and build there.

otherwise, learn to work with a community, for the betterment of it.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jan 4, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

Well said Geoffery!

by Thayer-D on Jan 4, 2013 10:55 am • linkreport

Not just nice to look at, an important part of reducing cost of public stormwater management infrastructure: excerpt below from USDA, "How Trees Can Retain Stormwater Runoff"

Depending on size and species, a single tree may store 100 gallons or more, at least until it reaches saturation after about one to two inches of rainfall. When multiplied by the number of trees in a community, this interception and redistribution can be significant. It is estimated that the urban forest can reduce annual runoff by 2 – 7 percent. This reduction can be converted into dollar savings due to the use of smaller drainage and artificial retention systems. When trees are combined with other natural landscaping, studies have shown that as much as 65 percent of storm runoff can be reduced in residential developments. In fact, sometimes even 100 percent of rainfall can be retained on site.

by jnb on Jan 4, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

Today's exercise class: apply to this post to the debate about the Tysons park in the breakfast links.

by charlie on Jan 4, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

I think we need to focus not just on the number of trees, but the type and their health. A lot of neighborhoods were originally planted with fast growing trees, such a poplar, but 50 years later these trees became too big and sometimes dangerous. Trees are often not pruned or treated until they become a problem, such as dead branches. For example, we could plant more fruit trees because they tend to be smaller, have hard wood, and have a delicious side effect, but they require regular pruning.

by SJE on Jan 4, 2013 3:38 pm • linkreport

Adding to what SJE said, species is important. The popular Callery Pear (better known as Bradford pear) is a popular, fast growing yard tree, but has weak wood. My neighbors just cut theirs down because it was losing branches after almost every storm. Native trees are also better choices, since they are designed for the climate, support other animal and plant species, and aren't going to choke out other natives.

by Vanmo96 on Jan 4, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

Many fruit trees are considered ornamentals and after their burst of glory often have unspectacular, in not outright mangy greenery.

You can't replace our glorious tall shade trees with the likes of cherries and pears, I don't think. There's no comparing an oak to a cherry. The coverage just isn't there.

The oak is the national tree of the USA.

I fear timidity in the face of storms we saw in 2012. We need to show more boldness and like others have said, renewed commitment to trim and prune, because after a certain point in a tall shade tree, the pruning jobs look more like amputations. Regular pruning and early warning are the keys, among others.

Fruit trees are often good for spot shadings, and targeted areas. But there is a big difference between an ornamental and a shade tree. I believe the article talked mostly of the shade trees.

by Jazzy on Jan 4, 2013 6:52 pm • linkreport

Having grown up with fruit trees, there's also the problem of the fruit. You may imagine wonderful fresh treats, but there can be too much to harvest, years where the fruit doesn't ripen well and years where pests get to the fruit first. All trees need care and many have headaches like sap and seed pods. I loved having a tree shaded yard in Atlanta, but the swamp oak on my neighbor's property was dying and damaged both of our houses in storms and was ultimately cut down. I had a pine that was an endangered species that needed special care, while it's sap and pine cones meant special care for other things.

by Rich on Jan 5, 2013 12:32 am • linkreport

It is baloney that the County Council is trying to preserve trees in Montgomery County. In reality, they are approving every development proposal that comes before them. And that development means cutting down trees before new structures are built. Just drive along Rockville Pike, and you can see trees being cut down to build more urban developments.

by Marc Brenman on Jan 5, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport


Seriously? So I guess they should just build on top of the trees without cutting them down first.

The article is not talking about trees on tracts of land slated for development, but trees along rights-of-way, in public space, etc. so Montgomery County looks less like Fairfax county wasteland and more like Chevy Chase, DC.

by really? on Jan 5, 2013 7:13 pm • linkreport

Large trees are far more difficult to handle in built up areas compared to smaller trees. It is just not reasonable to have many giant oaks in a highly dense area like Wheaton or d/t Silver Spring, but that doesnt mean we should not have trees.

I agree that there are downsides of fruit or nut trees. OTOH,I think a lot of it is cultural: people are out of the habit of getting fruit anywhere except at the stores. But that can be changed. Nut trees can be both beautiful, long lasting, and do not have the same fruit pollution problems.

by SJE on Jan 6, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

Large trees have been handled perfectly fine in built up areas for decades, if not centuries. It is reasonable to expect to have large shade trees lining our streets and side streets, and citizens should continue advocating for them.

Ornamentals and fruit trees have their places. They are great for targeted areas like by a bench, for spot shading. But the coverage simply isn't there, not like with a shade tree. Furthermore, their planting often looks dinky when done as a replacement for tall shades, put in plop-plop-plop, much like the plantings of annuals like pansies and others which ends up with all the appeal of just another industrial or office park.

Sure, plant nut trees and fruit trees, and absolutely harvest all the fruit, these are great in city yards, I'm all for that. Shade trees and harvesting fruit trees are not mutually exclusive. You can do both.

But shade trees are irreplaceable and need our attention and continued planting. In cities. On streets and in parks.

Don't be afraid.

by Jazzy on Jan 6, 2013 3:44 pm • linkreport

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