The Baltimore Department of Transportation has changed how it charges fees for some work permits used by tree-planting organizations in the city.

The change comes about three months after the nonprofit Baltimore Tree Trust said it was suddenly charged permit fees it had not previously been charged. The fees, according to the group, could have been as high as $12,000 for a $22,620 project in Midtown and $10,680 on a $25,577 project in Greenmount West.

Tree planting projects “ground immediately to a halt while we try to figure this out,” said Baltimore Tree Trust managing director Elliot Weidow.

The Department of Transportation implemented a new fee structure for tree-planting groups in response to concerns from the Tree Trust and others. But, Weidow said, the new structure does not appear to meaningfully help tree-planting groups save money.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“This plan does not actually change anything,” he said in an email.

Charging permit fees to nonprofit groups planting trees in Baltimore could prove to be counter to the city’s own self-interest. Baltimore has an ambitious goal to plant enough trees to achieve 40% overall canopy in the city by 2037. Reaching that goal will require the work of nonprofit and volunteer groups that plant trees.

The new policy from the department says eligible tree-planting groups will be charged per impacted city block, rather than a fee per work week, according to a memo from Adam Cloud, the Department of Transportation’s chief of right of way.

A department spokesperson said the new fee structure should reduce permit fees to one-quarter of the original cost. Weidow said that would likely not be the case, because the type of tree-planting projects his and other organizations do in Baltimore aren’t limited to just a couple of city blocks.

Instead, Weidow said, the projects typically involve planting a tree or two (and therefore digging a new tree well or expanding an existing one) across multiple city blocks.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The city “depends on its nonprofit partners to plant a majority of the 5,000+ trees that are installed around the City on an annual basis,” the DOT memo says. “The creation of tree wells and planting of new trees is of critical importance to City residents as trees contribute significantly to cleaner air, water, and reduced heat island effect. We look forward to collaborating with partners to further the goal of increasing the canopy of Baltimore City.”

You need a permit to plant a tree?

Yes. The permits at issue are specifically for working in the right of way, and are required because the work means closing part of a sidewalk and maybe the road.

The projects that Baltimore Tree Trust and other groups are concerned about are ones where they’re cutting into concrete sidewalks to dig new wells for trees to go in later. These aren’t projects that are putting trees in empty fields or vacant lots — they’re projects putting trees on city streets where people live and walk every day.

A worker with the Baltimore Tree Trust works on cleaning up a sidewalk after parts of it were removed to create tree wells.

The Baltimore Department of Transportation confirmed in an email that permit fees for tree-planting groups had been waived in the past, but “there is no supporting documentation of the previous no-fee agreement.”

“There has been no real good explanation as to why” the city started applying fees, Weidow said in an interview. “There was no warning on it.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

When asked about the changes to the fee structure, a DOT spokesperson said in an email that it’s “imperative” that representatives from the agency, City Council and partner organizations are “current” and that any agreement is properly documented.

What it means to neighborhoods

The bottom line, according to neighborhood and nonprofit groups that spoke to The Banner, is that this change to permitting fees will cut into the work they can do.

“At the end of the day, if they hold tight to these fees, we’re just not going to be able to plant these trees,” said Chris Billak of the Greater Remington Improvement Association.

Billak’s organization planted 132 trees last year, and he wants to plant up to another 200, he said — but the newly applied fees would cut down by about 25% the number the organization can afford to plant.

He said that every dollar DOT charges for a permit is a dollar less that organizations can put toward digging tree wells and planting trees.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“The proposed changes in the January 23, 2024 letter do not represent a significant reduction in their proposed fee structure,” Billak said.

Curtis Ritz, a vice president at Midtown Baltimore, similarly said the fees that DOT started charging last year have put a delay on projects and would limit the group’s ability to plant trees.

And, he said, Midtown Baltimore has requested a meeting to review the new fee structure in more detail.

“I am confident this will lead to a positive outcome for all city agencies, non-profit tree-planting partners, and, most importantly, the residents of Baltimore City,” he wrote in an email.

And Darin Crew, the director of restoration for Blue Water Baltimore, said plainly that the fees “will be a reduction in work.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Why plant trees?

Just about anyone can walk down the street and tell you that trees are pleasant to look at. But the benefits of living in an area with more trees, and of expanding the urban tree canopy, are more than just aesthetic.

Trees can help cool areas and buildings both directly and indirectly by providing shade and a mechanism called evapotranspiration, a natural misting effect as water leaves the leaves, according to the National Parks Service.

Trees and other vegetation also help combat the urban heat island effect — a phenomenon in which areas that are more developed and paved-over have measurably higher temperatures than areas that do not. More vegetation also helps manage stormwater runoff.

And expanding the urban tree canopy means not just planting trees in parks and empty fields or abandoned lots, but cutting through existing sidewalk squares and planting trees along roadways.

Trees increase and enhance “the vibrancy of neighborhoods,” said Ritz. Since Midtown Baltimore’s plantings are volunteer-based, he said they also help bring communities together.

Despite the uncertainty created by the permit fees, Ritz said, his organization is determined. They’re hosting a volunteer planting day on April 20 this year — and they’ll celebrate the thousandth volunteer-planted tree in Mount Vernon.

“We’re excited,” Ritz said. “We’re going to get these trees in the ground.”