Brothers Gary and Matt Percy, business owners in Canton Township, Michigan, face nearly a half a million dollars in fines after they removed trees from their own property without the township's permission.
Many of the plants the township is classifying as trees, their lawyer claims, are actually invasive plants. The Percy brothers are hoping to start a Christmas tree farm on the land, and are working toward planting 2,500 such trees on the property.
“It is a shockingly high fine for allegedly clearing a retired grazing pasture in an industrial area,” their lawyer, Michael J. Pattwell, told Watchdog.org.
The township is claiming the brothers violated a local tree removal ordinance that requires landowners to get government permission before removing trees from their property.
The township defines a tree as a woody plant with a defined stem of at least three inches in diameter at chest height. Because the township does not know the exact number of trees removed, it hired an arborist to examine the make-up of trees on an adjacent property to estimate what trees were on the Percy brothers' property before they removed them. In a settlement offer, the township proposed fines of about $450,000 for the removal of what it claims is slightly less than 1,500 trees, including 100 landmark or historic trees.
The fine can be reduced by about $70,000 if the Percy brothers pay into the township's tree fund and plant new trees, according to the settlement offer from the township.
Pattwell objected both to the fines being levied in the first place and how the arborist calculated the number of trees the township is now claiming were cut down. He said the Percy brothers thought they qualified for an agricultural exemption from the township. The brothers mostly removed invasive plants, including phragmites, buckthorn, autumn olive and dead ash trees from the land in an industrial part of town to make room for the Christmas tree farm, Pattwell said.
“Nobody argues with the stated goals of local ordinances to protect true heritage trees in communities or promote neighborhood trees to beautify neighborhoods,” Pattwell said. “But in this case, we believe strongly the township has abused its authority in order to punish a landowner unreasonably.”
Additionally, Pattwell said that examining the adjacent property is problematic because that piece of land has a different, unique history, and is not a reasonable or accurate way to calculate the number and type of trees the Percy brothers removed.
Pattwell added that this is not an isolated problem.
“There are many communities around Michigan that have established local tree removal ordinances that put municipalities in the business of harassing local business and property owners unfairly, certainly,” he said.
Kristin Kolb, the township’s attorney, said that she was not at liberty to discuss the specific cost of the fines because of a confidentiality agreement. Pattwell said that no confidentiality agreement exists.
Kolb defended the township’s decision to enforce its ordinance. Getting cited for illegally removing trees is a rare occurrence in Canton Township, she said, because most people abide by the ordinance.
The method by the arborist to examine an adjacent property that is part of the "same forest," Kolb said, is recognized in the arborist field.
The township has not received a response from Pattwell regarding the settlement, Kolb said. Patwell said the Percy brothers will defend themselves against Canton Township's fine and threatened legal action. The specifics of how that will play out, he said, are still unclear.