A real estate developer in Washington, D.C., is urging lawmakers to draft a loophole in city law that would allow a company to remove heritage trees from a site where it wants to build a new apartment complex.

The company is seeking to remove five heritage trees, each more than 100 inches in circumference and protected under district law for having irreplaceable value, to make way for 200 new apartment units. Despite pushback from environmentalists who say the tree canopies are crucial to protect, developers argue the space could be used to ease the housing crisis in the district.


“What we have here is a bit of a conundrum for a developer,” Peter Farrell, managing partner of City Interests, told DCist. “We were given a right to develop the property, and subsequent to that being issued, the district government introduced new legislation protecting heritage trees. So, we’re at a conflict because without removing the trees, you can’t build the buildings.”

Heritage trees are protected under city law for having unique value, barring residents and developers from removing the trees without explicit government permission. Violations of the law result in hefty fines, with a minimum of $30,000.

City Interests approached several lawmakers seeking to rewrite a current law prohibiting the removal of heritage trees unless it poses a hazard, arguing the site is needed to progress the mayor’s goal of building 36,000 more housing units by 2025. The initiative, dubbed “New Year, New Housing” by Mayor Muriel Bowser, aims to keep up with the increasing demand for housing while keeping costs low.

Councilmember Vincent Gray introduced legislation near the end of April to provide an exemption for the developer to remove the heritage trees without consequence.

The bill marks the latest battle between developers and lawmakers seeking to maintain the heritage trees legislation. Several companies over the years have approached the conundrum by illegally cutting down the trees and paying the fine afterward, writing it off as a regular business cost.

However, the loophole faces an uphill battle as Councilmember Mary Cheh, chairwoman of the Transportation and Environment Committee and original author of the heritage tree legislation, indicated the bill wouldn’t be considered. City Interests had initially approached Cheh to consider drafting a bill within the environment committee, but she reportedly shut down the notion.

“I have no intention of moving this bill,” Cheh told the outlet. “I think it’s bad business, and I’m sorry that after they got the reception that they got from my office, that they figured they would shop it around to somebody else because I’m still not interested.”

Carving out an exception to the law would set an ugly precedent, Cheh said, appearing to benefit some developers over others.

“I know the exemption business,” she said. “Once you have one, then you have two.”


Rather than seek changes to existing law, developers should pay to have the trees relocated, preserving the heritage trees while also clearing the site for construction, the councilwoman said. However, developers with City Interests said it would cost roughly $1 million to move the trees, which isn’t realistic — noting the project is already costly with rising housing and construction costs.

“We just have to decide since we can’t achieve both,” Farrell said. “I think housing is a critically important element for this city: We simply don’t have access to affordable housing for enough people in the District of Columbia. Period. End of discussion.”

The Washington Examiner reached out to the D.C. Council and City Interests but did not receive responses.