Is Urban Forest Canopy a Threat to Property Rights?
Religion & Liberty Online

Is Urban Forest Canopy a Threat to Property Rights?

Grand Rapids Aerial (Office of FIl,, Music and Special Event)Grand Rapids, Mich. has 34.6 percent canopy cover according to the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project website, and has a goal of reaching 40 percent across the entire city. Canopy cover refers to the amount of space covered by the shade of a trees canopy as seen from overhead. If you have ever parked your car in a blacktop lot on a sunny day with no tree cover you can understand the value of shade, but is it worthy of taxpayer dollars and the sacrifice of property rights?

The 2011 Green Grand Rapids amendment to the City’s Master plan established the new goal of 40 percent canopy cover. The city and organizations pushing for the 40 percent canopy goal believe that the community can gain great economic benefit by accomplishing this goal. They claim that the urban forest protects against floods, pollution, and even reduces energy usage through increased shade and cooling.  This economic benefit has been calculated with the assistance of I-tree, a program developed by USDA to perform benefit analysis of increasing the urban canopy. Over the last couple of years there have been thousands of trees planted along streets and in public areas through the efforts of these organizations and others like Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the City of Grand Rapids Office of Sustainability and Energy, and Alliance of Community Trees, but this has barely scratched the surface of achieving this goal. Therefore, this goal is unlikely to be achievable using only public land which may lead to some issues with property rights.

The 34.6 percent canopy translates to approximately 1.6 million trees in the Grand Rapids area, but 95 percent of these trees are on private lands. Even the Urban Forest Project recognizes that the most room for retention and expansion of the urban forest is on private lands. Retaining trees on private lands, owners deciding not to remove them, is as important as increasing the amount of trees because there is no guarantee that the trees on private lands will remain. Many people remove trees during renovation or development projects, which is within their current rights as private property owners.

In a recent blog post the Grand Rapids Urban Forestry Project stated:

Trees are frequently removed or abused because it is easier than the alternative and their individual values are not always well recognized – even if our community has stated in multiple documents and strategies that a larger tree canopy is a desire…The Alliance for Community Trees suggests that protecting large “heritage” or “landmark” trees is a best practice for tree conservation nationwide.

This means the city could determine a property owner may not remove certain trees from his/her land without obtaining a costly or time-consuming permit. Two cities with similar laws give useful comparison some comparison. In Sunnyvale, Calif. it can cost $259.50 for a permit to remove a “protected” tree; in Tampa, Fla. it can cost between $99 and $514 for permission to remove a tree depending on type and level of protection.

Should the city be able to determine what you can remove from your own land? The answer to this question seems to be rooted in one of the key components of America society, property rights. Property rights is the ability to own things, and be able to use them in any way the owner sees fit, even removal or destruction of that property. Furthermore, if the city does assume the right to prevent the removal of a tree from your property, will the cost of upkeep be a burden upon the individual property owner? Or will it be spread across all of the beneficiaries, the residents of Grand Rapids? If the former, then property owners will be forced to not only give up the ability to add value to your land by developing it, but must also pay the costs of retaining the trees on your land. If the latter, then taxpayers may be complacent in cost sharing, paying to retain trees across the entire city that you may derive no benefit from personally.

While there are some aesthetic and possible economic benefits to this plan it is important to be cautious. Is the canopy program one with worthy goals that deserves supports, or is it just another government program, funded by tax-payers, that takes away property rights?


Shawn Flynn

Shawn Flynn is an intern at the Acton Institute. He has a B.A. in Political Science/Pre-Law from Michigan State University.