DDOT Testimony of Dr. Jessica Sanders
Councilmember Mary Cheh
Committee on Transportation and Environment
1350 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Suite 108
Washington, D.C. 20004
January 27, 2020
Subject: Casey Trees Comments for the District Department of Transportation Performance Oversight Hearing
To Councilmember Cheh,
Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments regarding the District Department of Transportation’s performance. Casey Trees is a D.C. based nonprofit with the mission to “restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the nation’s capital”.
The creation of the Urban Forestry Division in DDOT, the passage of the Urban Forest Preservation Act and the declaration of a 40 percent tree canopy goal have all put Washington, D.C. on the forefront of urban forestry policy. With the 2016 Tree Canopy Protection Amendment Act, D.C. showed it was willing to push itself by not only increasing the number of trees that are considered Special, but by also creating an entire class of trees, Heritage trees, that could not be removed. Today, these tree protection standards serve as a model and aspiration for other municipalities. UFD’s work has made D.C. a leader in urban forestry and we are proud to call DDOT’s Urban Forestry Division a partner in trees. But with changing times comes the need for further innovation. Our current law only protects trees on private land, leaving the District’s public trees at constant risk for removal. The trees in our public spaces are one of our city’s greatest assets and sometimes peoples’ only regular interaction with nature. The existing law states that: “The urban forest of the District of Columbia, growing on both public and private land1, is one of the District’s greatest natural resources”, providing numerous environmental benefits and significant aesthetic value. The D.C. government recognizes the value that all District trees collectively provide, yet they have excluded public trees from legislative protection. There are over 37,000 trees that should be protected by our urban forestry law, 15 percent of which are of Heritage tree size2. We ask the D.C. Council to expand the Urban Forest Preservation Act to protect ALL trees, not just those removed by nongovernmental or private entities.
We are at a critical point in our City’s future, where our policy changes and planning efforts will either strengthen our ability to be resilient or undermine it by taking valuable natural resources away from vulnerable communities. We manage our urban forest for people, but if we are to build a resilient D.C., it is imperative that we design our communities around our parks, forests and waterways. There is a finite amount of land available for development in the District, making the protection of existing natural resources critical. Private developers are being held to progressive sustainability standards through tree canopy protection, stormwater management and the Green Area Ratio. The District is not held to such standards, despite owning 30 percent of all land in the city. The reality of our existing policy is that any number of the century-old trees on District land can be removed without legal consequence.
In Ward 7, this is happening. Kenilworth Courts is a District owned apartment complex that lies within a 500-year floodplain. It is currently being redeveloped through a public-private partnership with D.C. Housing Authority and several District area developers. Existing rules state that no nongovernmental entity may remove public property without the applicable permits. The Kenilworth Court renovations are being done under the umbrella of an LLC by a private firm, however, they are unlawfully removing numerous Heritage trees and a staggering number of Special trees, all without DDOT authorization or permit. We know that DDOT cares deeply for trees – we want to ensure that they have the ability to enforce the laws they have been charged with upholding and require this LLC to protect the Heritage Trees and pay for the removal of the Special trees. If the District wants to build resiliency, wants to ready itself for climate change, it must make sure that, with no exception, the rules and regulations built to do this are followed. If we make allowances now, we are weakening DDOT and other agencies’ ability to consistently execute similar rules in the future. The trees at Kenilworth Courts have endured 500-year floods, they have removed pounds of dangerous pollutants from our water and have become a defining feature of the community. Kenilworth Court residents may return home once the renovations are complete, but they will be coming back to a vastly different landscape – one that cannot shield them from the hot summer sun, prevent flooding during harsh storms or remove harmful pollution from the air. By removing these trees, we are weakening a vulnerable area’s ability to withstand the inevitable impacts of climate change.
Whether by-right or as a Planned Unit Development, there are a multitude of permitting and approval processes that developers must go through before they can begin construction. They must get approval from UFD to remove Special trees, DOEE for environmental protection or remediation plans and the Offices of Zoning and Planning for Zoning Code and Comprehensive Plan compliance. This division of responsibilities is important because it allows subject matter experts to review the various pieces of a development plan, but it can also lead to agencies being siloed in their decision making. When this happens, the different recommendations may end up not being harmonious with one another. We ask that UFD increase their collaboration with DOEE and the Office of Zoning when reviewing development plans to ensure that all proposed developments are in compliance with all District plans, policies and regulations. We recommend this be done by having monthly review meetings between designated agency members. Having reoccurring meetings will ensure that the final approved plan will not just meet requirements but support and forward all District development goals set out in Sustainable D.C. 2.0, Climate Ready D.C., Resilient D.C. and the D.C. Comprehensive Plan.
In a city that is constantly changing, it is important to continue to emphasize the intersection between development and environmental protection in our policies. Many of our existing environmental, sustainability and green building regulations include some form of environmental support. However, as the District continues to update its existing infrastructure, it should aim to exceed these standards. Trees living in an urban environment face many more stressors than their rural counterparts. UFD has done a great job in thoughtfully choosing tree species that will survive these hard conditions and in the last year, they have increased tree planting locations by opening up over 100 tree spaces and have planted over 6,500 new trees. UFD, along with DDOT as a whole, have also done a good job including tools and techniques that maximize tree growth potential in their infrastructure updates. We ask that DDOT continue to have the budget to remove impervious surfaces, create new tree spaces and implement tree friendly tools and technologies in their planned infrastructure updates3. Trees calm traffic, build resiliency, create effective buffers between cars and bikes and mitigate the heat island effect. By installing this infrastructure, not only will we be giving trees a chance to thrive in the harsh urban environment, but we will also bring ourselves closer to reaching the goals set forth in Sustainable D.C. 2.0, Vision 0, Climate Ready D.C., Resilient D.C. and the D.C. Comprehensive Plan.
Another way to ensure we are protecting our urban forest is by knowing who is responsible for it. However, because the agency that owns the land may not be the one that manages or maintains it, it can be hard to know what agency is responsible for what tree. We ask UFD to collaborate with DOEE, DGS and DPR, to create an organizational flow chart showing who cares for the trees in these different spaces. Our public trees provide immeasurable value to District residents and many are eager to help protect and maintain these trees. Unfortunately, they do not always know who to contact. Having an organizational chart clearly defining who is responsible for what tree and who to contact for help with these trees will provide clarity for residents and help streamline the tree planting, maintenance and removal requests.
Having appropriate policies in place to plant, protect and maintain a healthy tree canopy is important, but so is having data on those trees. OpenData D.C. is an OCTO run data platform that provides easily understandable data to residents, including information about trees. UFD have done a wonderful job collaborating with OCTO to provide the public with this information. However, some of the fields within the tree datasets are out of date or have vague or misleading names. One example of this is the Special Tree Permit dataset. In this dataset, two fields have this problem. The first is the “Under55TreeCount” field. The field name refers to the former minimum circumference of a Special tree and lists the number of trees on the property that are not considered Special. But it is hard to know if the number of trees listed are all trees under 55 inches in circumference, as the name would suggest, or the number of trees that are not Special or Heritage trees on the property. The 2016 amendment to the Urban Forest Preservation Act changed the minimum circumference of Special trees from 55 inches to 44 inches. This significantly increased the number of trees that fell under the Special Tree designation. We recommend changing the name of this field to “NonHeritageNonSpecialTreeCount”. This new title explains exactly what is in the field and can transcend future legislative changes. The second field in the Special Tree Permit dataset that needs updating is the “Zoning” field. This field contains the zone that the permitted tree resides in. However, the zone designations in this field are from both the 1958 and 2016 Zoning Regulations. While we understand that these differences are because some data was inputted before 2016, several of the previous zoning designation still exist, but with new definitions. We recommend updating all Zoning Code designations to be in line with the 2016 Zoning Regulations. This easy update will provide consistency throughout the dataset and clarity for the data user. We also recommend changing the field name to “2016 Zoning” or “ZR16 Zone Designation”. This will indicate which zone definitions the field is using. Understanding the Zoning Code is difficult and forcing someone to translate zoning designations only increases the barriers for data use. We ask UFD to work with OCTO and the Chief Data Officer to make these updates. Making these changes will help user better understand and use this information.
While we may not agree with every decision that is made at DDOT – we applaud the agency’s ability to hold community meetings and listen to all stakeholders. DDOT has done a wonderful job supporting and protecting our tree canopy. Because of them, we are on track to reach our canopy goal. But once we meet this goal, our next challenge will be to maintain it. By updating and amending our policies, we can achieve more than a tree canopy goal. We can create a vibrant, livable and loveable community.
Thank you again for the opportunity to comment on the District Department of Transportation’s 2019 performance. If you have any questions regarding our comments or would like further explanation, I can be reached at 202-349-1905 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jessica Sanders PhD, PMP
Director of Science and Policy