A well-treed community

Chapel Hill’s reputation as a community of tree-huggers took a beating last night as citizens speaking against proposed changes to the tree protection ordinance far outnumbered those supporting a new law.

A few Town Council members took credit for leading the charge for change after Jim Heavner took advantage of a loophole in the town ordinance by clear-cutting his lot on Gimghoul Road before applying for a building permit to construct his new mansion. The proposed ordinance up for discussion at Monday night’s Town Council meeting was produced by town staff and an outside consultant based on a vision of “no net loss of trees.” The proposed ordinance laid out tree canopy goals of between 20 percent and 60 percent, depending on the size of the lot and whether it was residential or commercial property.

The proposed ordinance requires owners of a half-acre or larger property to hire an arborist and apply for a permit before removing any tree that might knock it below the 50 percent canopy required. The 58 percent of residential properties in town smaller than a half acre would be exempt from the permit requirement.

Would that encourage us to become a community of scofflaws who remove a tree struck by lightning without first hiring an arborist to pronounce it dead? Would we foster snitches, realistically the only way the town could uniformly enforce such a law? Could the well-treed entrepreneurs among us sell canopy rights to residents with Midwestern roots who value vast expanses of sun-splashed lawns and gardens? Would the town play the role of extortionist by demanding a fee of $1,000 per tree below the required canopy minimum? Would Bradford pear trees that don’t provide shade qualify as canopy trees while property owners be forced to remove 100-foot-tall loblolly pines (which might or might not be considered a suitable canopy tree) and replace them with hardwoods? Would the planned renovation of University Mall have to sacrifice all of its parking spaces to comply with the canopy requirements?

The proposed changes sparked enough questions to overwhelm council members, who instructed the staff to take another stab at an ordinance that wouldn’t “regulate to the extreme,” as Council Member Matt Czajkowski advised.

The staff will report back on May 24.

— Nancy Oates

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1 Comment

  1. Duncan O'Malley

     /  February 23, 2010

    I don’t understand how the town council thinks it can promote higher density along major transit corridors when it comes up with things like this.

    Instead of passing new laws, why don’t they focus on fixing existing laws that shouldn’t have been passed in the first place?