State could ban city and county tree laws
State legislators may act this summer to bar cities, towns and counties from imposing tree-protection rules on private property owners, if a study committee gets its way.
The proposal surfaced Wednesday morning and got an endorsement from the Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Study Commission, a panel that includes a mix of legislative and gubernatorial appointees.
Its vote made the bill eligible for consideration in the N.C. General Assembly’s election-year “short session,” which by rule is supposed to concentrate mainly on budget issues.
A trade group for cities and towns, the N.C. League of Municipalities, immediately alerted its member governments and asked them to oppose the measure.
“It cuts to the core of what cities and towns do in trying to determine how the course of economic development happens in their communities, as well as development generally,” said Erin Wynia, a league lobbyist.
The measure in essence has two parts, including one that additionally bars local governments from regulating the use of fertilizer.
The language on tree-protection laws is direct, barring both cities and counties from adopting or enforcing any ordinance or regulation that governs “the removal, replacement and preservation of trees on private property within its jurisdiction.”
League analysts believe it would cancel out entirely the tree rules Durham, Chapel Hill and many other North Carolina communities have on the books.
The proposal would nominally leave intact a provision grant that says local governments can address “forestry activities” in the context of “regulat[ing] activity associated with development.”
But Wynia said the league suspects the courts would eventually hold that the specific prohibition on local trees rules would override the more general grant of regulatory authority.
Durham’s tree-protection rules are extensive and span at least two chapters of the city/county “unified development ordinance.” They cover such matters as the amount of tree coverage the developers of new subdivisions have to provide, and the sort of buffers have to be left as buffer between new and existing buildings and neighborhoods.
The City/County Planning Department alerted Durham elected officials Wednesday afternoon. Assistant Planning Director Pat Young said it would arrange a staff-level meeting “of all potentially affected city and county departments in the very near future to identify [the] impacts” of the draft bill.
The spark for the bill is unclear.
Study group meeting agendas indicate the panel fielded complaints from an Iredell County nursery about “unreasonable” city and town planting specifications that cost North Carolina nurseries business.
It recommended the revival of a 2011 bill that only cleared the N.C. Senate that would have required cities and counties to use the standards for planting stock suggested by the American Nursery and Landscape Association.
In February, the panel also received a briefing by N.C. Department of Agriculture staffers that warned of local-government interest in regulating fertilizer use. It singled out Durham County as an organization that might act on that front.
The county’s chief lobbyist, Assistant County Manager Deborah Craig-Ray, acknowledged that local officials have discussed the idea at the staff level.
State pollution regulations require Durham to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous deposits into two regional drinking-water reservoirs, Falls and Jordan Lakes.
But the county would need the state’s permission to regulate fertilizer, and “it’s nothing that was ever put in a legislative agenda emanating from Durham,” Craig-Ray said.
Attempts Wednesday to reach two of the study group’s co-chairs, state Sens. Andrew Brock and Brent Jackson, were unsuccessful. Both are Republicans, Brock hailing from Davie County and Jackson from Sampson County.
Jackson’s office referred questions to a legislative staffer, Towers Mingledorff, who also could not be reached for comment.
The bill could create a political dilemma for Gov. Pat McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte who in the past has claimed credit for helping pass that city’s tree-protection rules.
McCrory, a Republican, in 2007 told a U.S. congressional subcommittee those rules were a highlight of Charlotte’s attempts to protect the environment.
In the same testimony, he also said part of his job as mayor had been “to step on the toes of the fringe elements of both the left and the right whole believe you cannot have both economic and environmental policy working in tandem.”
As governor, however, McCrory has largely stood aside as the GOP-majority General Assembly moved to intervene in local-government issues.
Intervention proponents adhere to common-law and state-constitutional doctrines that hold the state’s cities, town and counties have no right to self-government.