WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - For as long as the city of Wilmington has had a tree removal ordinance on the books, developers and residents alike have had the occasional run-in with the policy.
So far in 2019, the city has issued $72,000-worth of citations for removing trees without the proper permit.
That includes a $23,500 fine to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority — the second dust-up the organization has had with the city’s tree policy this year.
According to a CFPUA spokesperson Vaughn Hagerty, when the city was inspecting the new No. 10 Pump Station on One Tree Hill Way, the city staff member noticed trees had been cleared from an easement at the rear of the property.
Approximately 80 trees were cleared February 2018 when crews worked to install a new water main. The trees removed included laurel oak, black cherry, pine hickory and sweet gum trees — all without a permit.
Hagerty said the contractor was under the impression CFPUA had the same clearance as Duke Energy and no permit was required.
After a similar occurrence earlier this year, where contractors cleared trees from an easement near the RiverLights, Hagerty said CFPUA is committed to working with contractors and the city to make sure everyone understands when permits are required.
“After the March incident near River Road, CFPUA took a number of steps,” Hagerty said in an email to WECT. “Internally, CFPUA developed a policy change to take on the task of obtaining necessary permits for any tree removal required for new construction. Obtaining tree-removal permits has previously been the responsibility of contractors performing such work.”
Hagerty says CFPUA has agreed to plant 56 new trees on the easement behind the new pump station to mitigate the loss.
According to documents obtained by WECT, CFPUA’s $23,500 fine will be “rescinded” by the city manager’s office.
City spokesperson Malissa Talbert said the final details are still being ironed out, but they are moving toward a resolution.
The data in those documents indicates over the last three years, the city has issued 49 tree removal citations, with a total of $187,375 of fines.
One-third of those fines — worth a combined $81,575 — were rescinded, reduced or modified.
In one case, a fine against a residential property owner for $10,325 was rescinded after the Board of Adjustment accepted the owner’s appeal.
The rest of the 2016-2019 cases rescinded, modified or reduced were determined by the city manager’s office, and several of the 2019 cases have yet to be closed or determined. Of those, 40 percent of the fines, totaling $71,250, were reduced or dropped all together.
The majority of the properties where the unpermitted removal took place are zoned commercial or for other non-residential uses.
While there were fewer residential citations overall, the rate that those fines were rescinded was also lower compared to commercial properties.
Roughly 1 in 3 commercial citations were dropped, while only 1 in 4 residential fines were rescinded.
The per-property distribution of fines was also higher for residential properties, with an average of $6,105 per residential fine, compared to $2,742 per commercial fine.
The current version of Wilmington’s tree ordinance has been in effect since April 2008.
Except in times of emergency, anyone wishing to remove a tree within city limits must first get a permit from the city manager’s office. Those permits run from $25 to $150 depending on how large of a piece of land the property owner wishes to clear.
Civil penalties, or fines, for not obtaining a permit start at $400 per tree, or $50 per inch of the tree’s diameter, whichever is greater. If a property owner continues cutting down trees after being notified of the violation, the fine increases to $1,000 per tree, or $100 per inch.
Over the years there have been high-profile cases where the city settled with property owners over a tree-removal citation.
In 2015, Wilmington settled with the Inland Greens neighborhood after the homeowners’ association removed 28 trees without a permit. Inland Greens agreed to pay $10,000 and plant 100 new trees.
That same year, owners of the former Galleria shopping center agreed to plant 63 new trees after the owners were fined $13,000 for cutting down six protected trees on the site.
In 2017, the Village at Mayfaire cut down 50 oak trees without a permit, resulting in a $20,000 fine that was ultimately waived when developers made a deal with the city.
Talbert said each individual case is different, but when a property owner appeals a fine, the city’s emphasis is on preservation and replanting.
“Factors considered include whether or not trees will be replanted elsewhere in lieu of fees, or sometimes a combination of the two,” she said.