Senate Holds Bill Aiming to Protect Heritage Trees

Commissioner of Agriculture Carlos Robles testifies at a Senate committee hearing Friday.
Commissioner of Agriculture Carlos Robles testifies at a Senate committee hearing Friday.

A bill to protect individual trees with historic or cultural value was unanimously held Friday for further consideration and amendment.

The vote on the bill, No. 32-0062, occurred at a hearing of the 32nd Legislature’s Committee on Government Affairs, Veterans, Energy and Environmental Protection.

In addition to establishing a framework for the protection of “heritage trees,” the bill, sponsored by Senate President Myron Jackson, sets guidelines for the management of trees in public spaces, as well as some trees on private property, including those that pose a public hazard or nuisance. If passed, the regulations proposed by the bill will be added to the V.I. Code under the title “The Community and Heritage Tree Law of the Virgin Islands.”

After hearing generally positive testimony from entities including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Public Works, and the V.I. Water and Power Authority, senators decided the effects of passing the bill would be far-reaching enough to warrant holding it for further consideration. Among the reasons stated for holding the bill were a need for clarification on certain permitting exemptions, concerns over private property rights, and a lack of a specified funding source.

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All of the senators present, however, expressed support of the intention of the bill, and the motion to hold it, made by Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, included the condition that it should be put back on the agenda within one month.

Bill No. 32-0062 applies mainly to trees in public places such as streets, monuments or town squares, but there are instances in which private property would be affected. If a tree on private property were to be designated a heritage tree, it would become illegal for the property owner to prune, remove, or otherwise damage it. An exemption would be made for cases of “overriding need” or “severe hardship” as determined by a designated arborist or government-appointed forester.

As for who would determine which trees qualify as heritage trees, such decisions would fall to a body of no less than seven members, created by the legislation, called the Heritage Tree Council. That council would have the mandate of identifying and maintaining a registry of heritage trees, as well as applying to the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office to have those trees entered into the National Register of Historic Places like any other monument.

According to the bill, considerations that might go into the process of identifying a heritage tree include its species, size, age, location, ecological importance, historical and cultural significance, aesthetic value, economic benefit, special character, or community benefit.

Jackson said the mission of the bill extends beyond simply preserving unique and historical trees towards the goal of “maintaining healthy and vigorous community forests in public spaces.”

There was wide agreement among senators and testifiers Friday that legislation on the management of public trees, which has been passed in many other jurisdictions, is needed in the territory.

“For many years, residents, visitors, and those of us that have formal tree care certification have witnessed and experienced some of the most horrific and damaging practices on individual trees and tree communities on all three islands,” said Carlos Robles, commissioner of the V.I. Department of Agriculture.

Robles said that poor pruning practices, improper tree selection and placement, and a lack of maintenance have over the years lead to the loss of many historic trees, and created hazardous situations in public spaces.

If Bill No. 32-0062 becomes law, the Department of Agriculture will shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for enforcing it. The bill proposes the creation of two new positions under that department, one urban forester in each district, although no funding for those positions is identified.

The bill also proposes a seven member Virgin Islands Tree Board, separate from the Heritage Tree Council, whose stated mission is to support and advise the two urban foresters, as well as approve all certified arborists in the territory. The members of the board would be required to be specialists in arboriculture, forestry, urban forestry or urban planning.

The urban foresters, with assistance from the board, would be given the task of issuing permits for pruning, removal or any other work on all public trees, not just heritage trees. The bill mandates signage and public notice for all such work, and, in the case of removal, a public hearing. A fine of between $100 and $500 is proposed for a failure to get or follow a permit.

In the cases of trees that interfere with traffic or electric cables, the territory’s urban foresters would be given the right to prune or remove them even if on private property. In such cases they would need to provide written notification and request of entry to the property owner.

Crews working for the Department of Public Works and WAPA would also be given some permit exemption in doing work needed to maintain public infrastructure. In such cases, the bill’s language mandates that a member of the crew be supervised be a certified arborist.

Rupert Pelle, chief administrative officer of WAPA, testified, however, that he didn’t feel the language about WAPA’s exemptions were clear enough.

“It would certainly hinder productivity if each time we were required to perform unscheduled work, which is frequent, we could not proceed until we post a physical sign, publish the notice in the newspaper and have the notice broadcasted on the radio 14 days in advance,” Pelle said.

Reconsideration of the bill in the upcoming month will be the latest development in the decades-long process of crafting legislation to manage public trees and heritage trees in the territory. According to Jackson, work on crafting the current bill was begun by various agencies and organizations in 2008, and the issue has been on lawmakers’ radars for much longer.

In addition to Robles and Pelle, testifiers at Friday’s hearing included Marilyn Chakroff, former program coordinator for the Department of Agriculture’s Urban and Community Forestry Program; Mario A. Francis, chairman of the U.S. Virgin Islands Urban and Community Forestry Council, Inc.; Dennis Brow, assistant commissioner of the Department of Public Works; and Sean Krigger, the acting director and deputy state historic preservation officer for the Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office within the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

Committee members present, and voting to hold the bill, were Sens. Hansen, Sammuel Sanes, Marvin Blyden, Jean Forde, and Tregenza Roach. Sens. Nereida Rivera O’Reilly and Janette Millin Young were absent. Non-committee members present were Sens. Jackson and Brian Smith.

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