Housing crisis

DC developer cites housing crisis in battle to remove five heritage trees

A real estate developer in washington dc, urges lawmakers to write a loophole in municipal law that would allow a company to remove heritage trees from a site where it wants to build a new one apartment complex.

The company is looking to remove five heritage trees, each over 100 inches in circumference and protected by district law irreplaceable value, to make room for 200 new apartments. Despite denial from environmentalists who say tree canopies are essential to protect, developers say the space could be used to facilitate the housing crisis in the neighborhood.

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“What we have here is a bit of a developer conundrum, Peter Farrell, Managing Partner of City Interests, Told DCist. “We were given the right to develop the property, and following this the district government introduced new legislation protecting heritage trees. So we’re in conflict because without removing the trees, you can’t build the buildings.

Heritage trees are protected by municipal law for their unique value, preventing residents and developers from removing trees without explicit government permission. Violations of the law carry hefty fines, with a minimum of $30,000.

City Interests has approached several lawmakers seeking to rewrite a current law prohibiting the removal of heritage trees unless it poses a hazard, arguing that the site is necessary to advance the mayor’s goal to build 36,000 additional homes by 2025. The initiative, called “New year, new accommodations” by Mayor Muriel Bowser, aims to meet the growing demand for housing while keeping costs low.

Councilor Vincent Gray introduced legislation towards the end of April to grant a waiver to the proponent to remove the heritage trees without consequence.

The bill marks the latest battle between developers and lawmakers seeking to maintain the heritage tree legislation. Over the years, several companies have tackled the conundrum by illegally slaughter the trees and pay the fine afterwards, writing it off as a regular business cost.

However, the loophole faces an uphill battle as council member Mary Cheh, chair of the transport and environment committee and original author of the heritage tree legislation, indicated that the bill would not be taken into account. City Interests originally approached Cheh to consider drafting a bill in the environment committee, but she reportedly shut down the idea.

“I have no intention of moving this bill,” Cheh told the outlet. “I think it’s a bad deal, and I’m sorry that after they got the receipt they got from my office, they thought they were going around to someone else because I’m still not interested.”

Creating an exception to the law would set a horrible precedent, Cheh said, appearing to benefit some developers more than others.

“I know the exemption business,” she said. “Once you have one, you have two.”

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Rather than seeking changes to existing law, developers should pay to have trees relocated, preserving heritage trees while clearing the site for construction, the councilor said. However, developers with City Interests said it would cost around $1million to move the trees, which is unrealistic – noting that the project is already costly with rising housing and construction costs.

“We just have to decide because we can’t achieve both,” Farrell said. “I think housing is extremely important to this city: we just don’t have affordable housing for enough people in the District of Columbia. Period. End of the conversation.”

the Washington Examiner contacted DC Council and City Interests but received no response.