Tree ordinance leaves little room for violation

Chopping down a tree in Langley without a permit now comes with a serious – and costly – penalty.

Chopping down a tree in Langley without a permit now comes with a serious – and costly – penalty.

The city council unanimously approved a new ordinance this week that aims to enforce harsher consequences for unpermitted tree removal in the Village by the Sea. Members of the council asked for such an ordinance in 2022 after observing the loss of several large trees, whose choppers received after-the-fact permits but no other sanctions for their actions.

Now violators of the city’s new tree code will face big fines. For example, the unpermitted removal of a tree with a diameter at breast height larger than 30 inches comes with a $20,000 fine if on private property, and a $30,000 fine if located on city property, in right-of-way, in critical area or buffer, or protected through easement. “Diameter at breast height” means the diameter of a tree trunk measured at 4.5 feet above ground.

In a memo to the city council, Director of Community Planning Meredith Penny explained that the new ordinance establishes penalties in amounts corresponding to the size of the removed tree.

“Additionally, where a violation provides the property owner with economic benefits, such as increased property values or savings in construction costs, the amount of the economic benefit is assessed as an additional penalty,” she wrote.

The ordinance also establishes the requirement for a commercial tree service provider register. Repeat offenders of unpermitted tree removal can be removed from the register and will not be able to conduct business in Langley. City staff are preparing letters to inform tree service providers of the changes in Langley. In addition, citizens are being notified via an informational insert in their most recent utility bill.

But as Councilmember Rhonda Salerno pointed out, residents who pay their bills online will not receive the insert. Mayor Kennedy Horstman made a note of her suggestion to notify these people of the change.

The council appeared to be in agreement that a more fierce tree enforcement code is exactly what the city needs. Councilmember Craig Cyr noted that it has “really hard teeth,” and asked Penny if she was prepared to be the code enforcement officer.

Penny, who gave a resounding yes, said she hopes people choose the route of paying $75 for a permit rather than the other option. After-the-fact permits will still be issued, but now they come with harsher penalties.

Public Works Director Randi Perry asked about exemptions for her department. Penny said she can coordinate with Perry on public works related activity regarding tree removal. Councilmember Thomas Gill asked about other utilities, such as electricity and internet service providers. Penny responded that pruning is allowed and not considered damage, and that the work of these utility providers would not be classified as commercial tree work.