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Without permit, I-77 hotel cuts down trees on state land

Motorists on Interstate 77 now have a clear view of a Rodeway Inn, after an illegal tree-cutting by the hotel owner felled hundreds of trees.

Where there was once a line of trees and bushes near Clanton Road, there is now a bare patch of dirt that’s been covered with pine straw. The trees that were cut down were on state property.

“He wiped them all out,” said Tim Simpson, a division roadside engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation. “There were a lot of trees.”

The hotel owner, Kiran Patel, said Thursday he was trying to improve the appearance of the area and to make his sign more visible from the highway.

“I was trying to make it look better,” he said. “We are working with DOT to replant trees.”

The cutting is one of many along I-77 and other Charlotte highways since a 2012 state law was passed that allowed billboard companies to remove trees and bushes that block their signs. The “selective-vegetation removal” law can also apply to businesses.

In Charlotte and other cities, local tree-preservation ordinances frustrated billboard companies because the municipalities prohibited them from cutting down trees to make their signs more visible. The new law allows the city to comment on tree-cut permits, but the state makes the final decision.

Patel could have applied for a permit that would have allowed him to remove some of the trees, the DOT said. However, some of the trees would have been protected, the state said.

But he cut down the trees last month without any approval. Patel said he didn’t realize he couldn’t remove the vegetation on DOT property without state approval.

Simpson said Patel is working with the DOT to replant trees and won’t be fined due to his cooperation. There are pink flags on the site where trees will be replanted, Patel said.

Since March 2012, the city estimates that billboard companies have cut down about 4,700 trees. There have been 162 applications for tree cutting, the city said.

Preserving the city’s tree canopy is a priority of the Charlotte City Council.

The city has vigorously protested the law and the cutting. Don McSween, the city arborist, has said he is powerless to stop it.

In December, the city investigated whether Parkway Advertising violated the city’s tree ordinance when it cut down about 100 trees beside a billboard on Josh Birmingham Parkway near the airport. The city determined that its tree ordinance only applies to existing commercial development – not undeveloped parcels as was the case with the airport billboard.

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