CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and City Council are working to resurrect a long-dormant tree commission to help grow and protect the dwindling tree canopy in what was once known as the Forest City.
Legislation establishing a 15-member Urban Forestry Commission is making its way through City Council and could be approved as early as June 6, which would essentially bring back to life a similar commission that existed in the 1990s but stopped operating in the early 2000s for unknown reasons.
Cleveland’s tree canopy has been on the decline for decades, and the city continues to lose 97 acres of tree cover each year, said Bibb’s senior sustainability strategist Fran DiDonato. But trees, especially in urban areas, provide a host of economic, health and community benefits, like storing greenhouse gas emissions, improving water quality by filtering out pollutants, and naturally cooling off homes.
“They make our residents happy and healthier, they help to lower energy costs and they help make neighborhoods more vibrant,” DiDonato told a council committee Wednesday.
Local governments, grassroots groups and others in recent years have worked to bring attention to Cleveland’s diminished canopy. But the city also wants to strengthen its in-house efforts, too.
The Urban Forestry Commission would make policy recommendations to the mayor and council to better maintain and grow the tree canopy. It would work with city departments to reduce tree loss and damage, help educate residents about proper care, and foster more tree-related collaboration among city departments.
Though the city’s Division of Park Maintenance and Properties includes a small urban forestry section, Councilman Kerry McCormack said the city has failed to consult its own arborists when planning infrastructure projects, resulting in the city itself needlessly felling trees. He pointed to a road project on Fulton Road in which most of the surrounding trees were cut down.
“The damage that caused is incredible, and that’s because Urban Forestry was not at the table and not consulted,” he said.
DiDonato said the commission is intended to address issues like that. “The whole point of the commission will be looking at all the different procedures of the city, figuring out where Urban Forestry belongs, and how they insert themselves into projects.”
The commission would also solicit money for the city’s Tree Preservation Fund, which was established in 2018 but hasn’t been funded or used, DiDonato said. Some of the money would come through grants or donations, but other money would come through fines.
Though the city already has numerous tree-related laws on its books, they’re generally not being enforced, which means the city isn’t collecting fines that could be used to pay for tree planting and care. Some of the laws date back to 1924 and aren’t relevant anymore, like prohibitions against horses being tied to trees and causing damage. But others remain relevant, such as requiring developers to maintain or plant new trees as part of projects.
The commission would help the Urban Forestry section determine how to start collecting such penalties, which range up to $1,000, according to DiDonato.
Council members and the mayor could also ask the commission to examine any pressing tree-related issues and offer policy solutions or best practices the city could employ. Councilman Joe Jones raised a few examples: city-owned trees gutted to accommodate overhead wires, or concerns from residents who have been stuck with large bills because city-owned trees damaged sidewalks or utility lines.
“Those are the types of things where we need a deeper study…we need everyone to come to the table and work on it together,” DiDonato said.
As proposed, eight of the commission’s members would be appointed by the mayor and seven would be appointed by council. Membership would include representatives of city departments that affect the canopy, including Urban Forestry, the Division of Engineering and Construction, the Department of Public Utilities, and City Planning.
Other members would be a council member, a certified arborist, representatives of an electric company and an environmental justice group, a developer who’s worked in Cleveland, non-profits like the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and community members, including one youth.
Council members Tuesday were highly supportive of the plan, and several volunteered to serve on the commission.
The Bibb administration may be off and running with the plan, but the idea to resurrect the tree commission originally came from council. McCormack, of Ward 3, and Brian Kazy, Ward 16, first tried to re-establish it two years ago by introducing legislation, but former Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration squashed it, McCormack said.
The proposal now underway is an amended version of that bill but adds “some teeth” by empowering the commission to make policy recommendations, DiDonato said. The two-year-old proposal focused more on education and fundraising but didn’t provide the ability to recommend changes to city procedure, she said.
Said McCormack: “It’s good that we have an environment now to actually move progressive policy forward.”