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TC caught between growth and tree protection

Max Johnston

As Traverse City grows, its tree canopy is shrinking. The city is trying to protect trees in city limits, but no one can agree on the best way to do it.

Right now it’s relatively easy to cut down trees in Traverse City. You’ll need a permit to do it on public property.

But if you buy a lot for development, cut away.

Brianne Bee lives in Traverse City. She says she used to enjoy the view from her backyard.

"Past my backyard there was more trees ... it was more of like an open field," Brianne says. "I come home one day, and I look out my back window and I'm like 'oh it's all gone; it's all been knocked down.'"

Credit Max Johnston
The lot near Brianne Bee's home was clear cut for a real estate development.

The lot right behind her home was cleared for a real estate project, and lots like this are becoming more common in Traverse City.

According to one study, the area around Grand Traverse Bay has lost over 4,000 acres of tree cover since 2001. That can have a serious impact on a waterfront area like Traverse City: it hurts air quality, shorelines and property values. Some of Brianne's neighbors have had issues with stormwater runoff and their basements flooding.

Christine Crissman, the executive director of the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City, says the city needs to do something to protect their trees.

"There's not a lot left in our urban core, and I feel like this stuff needs to be protected, and it needs to be protected soon," Crissman says.
The city has tried to accomplish this by replanting trees and drafting tree protection rules like tree cutting limits, protecting historic trees and watering requirements.


"It's really trying to get away from clearing lots or from taking some of the really big trees and all the benefits that they provide without replacing them," Crissman says.


Crissman says these rules are necessary, but others say not so fast.


Kent Wood from the Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce says developers were taken aback by some of the proposed rules.


"The more I looked at it, the more I recognized that it would be commercial property owners ... who would be bearing the ultimate weight of replacing trees and paying for the cost," Wood says.


Wood says the proposed tree replacement and watering requirements would be expensive for developers. He says the Chamber supports tree protection but not quite what the city recommended.


"Maybe there's education opportunities or opportunies for the city to assist property owners ... without having to go right to a tree tax basically," Wood says.


Wood also says developers weren't involved when the rules were put together.

Credit Max Johnston
Traverse City residents and stakeholders at an input session on the city's tree protection.

That’s different now. The city is basically re-drafting the rules with more people at the table. For the next few months they’ll hold public meetings and input sessions on what tree protection will look like in Traverse City.

But all this may be for nothing.

There’s a bill that passed through the state Senate last month. It basically says cities can’t stop people from cutting down trees - at least most of them. It would bar cities from passing tree protection ordinances like what’s being debated in Traverse City.

Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Esconaba) sponsored the bill. He says private property owners should be able to do what they want with their trees.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.