If you need more evidence that America has become a “permission-slip” society, look no further than the City of Portland, Oregon, requiring homeowners to get permits to remove trees that’ve fallen on their houses during recent winter storms.
Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week published a story last week about Joel and Sarah Bonds, who had a large Douglas Fir in the backyard squash their house after it became weighed down with ice. The tree barely missed the Bonds’ young daughter and cat.
As it turns out, the couple were not unaware of the danger posed by the tree. In 2021, they’d applied for a necessary city permit to cut down the tree and another in their backyard. The city’s Urban Forestry division turned them down, citing the trees’ apparent health and the damage their removal would do to the “neighborhood character.”
That decision rankles the Bonds now. Making them even more mad is the fact that the city is requiring them to obtain a $100 retroactive removal permit for the one tree that fell on their house and plant a new one in its place at their own expense.
A Forestry Department employee also advised them to hire an arborist to chop down the second, still-standing tree, but that they should take care to document the work in case they’d need to apply for another removal permit. According to the Willamette Week story, the couple could risk daily $1,000 fines for removing the tree without a permit.
The Bonds aren’t the only homeowners being required to get retroactive removal permits for trees knocked down by the weather. This fact has provoked local outrage and calls for a change in policy.
A recent Oregonian editorial argues that the city should suspend the need to get retroactive removal permits for weather-downed trees, noting that neighboring cities in the area are not requiring such permits. One lawyer who spoke to the paper argued that the city code doesn’t obviously apply to trees felled by bad weather.
The city maintains that the removal permits are required by the city code and that city council action is needed to waive those permitting requirements.
The whole episode is an illustration of how property rights have been turned on their head in America’s cities. The city regulates tree removal to protect surrounding property owners’ interest in the shade and character of the neighborhood. Homeowners’ interests in doing what they please on their land are of secondary concern, even though they have to bear all costs and liabilities associated with keeping these trees on their properties.