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Tree police' threaten Michigan brothers with $450,000 fine for clearing trees on their own property

Two Michigan brothers are being asked to pay a $450,000 fine for violating an ordinance in their township after clearing shrubbery for a Christmas tree farm, because the local 'tree police' stepped in. (PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Two brothers in Michigan are facing a $450,000 fine for cutting down trees on their own property after their township's "tree police" got wind that the two cleared out shrubbery and trees without permission from the authorities.

What? You need a permit to remove trees?

Gary and Matt Percy own a 16-acre plot in Canton Township, and they are in the process of cultivating a Christmas tree farm. The brothers didn't believe they needed a permit for their endeavor, because of a farming exemption in the local ordinance. But the city called foul, initially threatening a fine of $700,000 before agreeing to settle for nearly half a million dollars to set things straight.

The Percys haven't paid anything, yet. Their attorney, Michael Pattwell, told Michigan Live that the parcel used to serve as pasture land for dairy cattle and was filled with "invasive plants like phragmites, buckthorn and autumn olive."

Once the brothers cleared the land to plant 2,500 Christmas trees, the "Canton Tree Police showed up," Pattwell said. "Canton Township's tree removal ordinance prohibits landowners from removing trees from private property without government permission, which may be obtained by either payment into the township's so-called tree fund or on-site replacement with trees of certain designated trunk diameters."

Canton Township's attorney, Kristin Kolb, stands by the city's decision to issue a fine to the Percys, because the brothers were "specifically told at least twice last year" that they needed a permit to remove trees from their property.

"This case is about misguided overreach," Pattwell said. "It is unavoidably about whether people who own property are allowed to use it. ... We contend the Percy brothers exercised a farming exemption in the local tree removal law to clear the historic pasture behind their business and develop a Christmas tree farm."

What does the ordinance say?

The ordinance in question states:

Landmark tree replacement: Whenever a tree removal permit is issued for the removal of any landmark tree with a (diameter at breast height) of six inches or greater, such trees shall be relocated or replaced by the permit grantee. Every landmark/historic tree that is removed shall be replaced by three trees with a minimum caliper of four inches. Such trees will be of the species from section 5b.06.

Replacement of other trees: Whenever a tree removal permit is issued for the removal of trees, other than landmark/historic trees, with a (diameter at breast height) of six inches or greater (excluding boxelder (acer negundo), ash (fraxinus spp) and cottonwood (populus spp), such trees shall be relocated or replaced by the permit grantee if more than 25 percent of the total inventory of regulated trees is removed.

The Percy brothers believe their land falls under the exemption cited in the ordinance, which states:

Exemptions: All agriculture/farming operations, commercial nursery/tree farm operations and occupied lots of less than two acres in size, including utility companies and public tree trimming agencies, shall be exempt from all permit requirements of this article.
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