Tree rights

Having spent my formative years in the Midwest, I appreciate undulating fields of vegetation, broken only occasionally by a mitered stand of trees planted to protect a farmhouse. So the notion that the only way to have an eco-friendly community is to make sure 40 percent of it is covered by trees at least 20 feet tall strikes me as odd.

Scott Radway, a developer, and Phil Post, an engineer who’s had an integral role in many properties being developed, also took exception to the proposed changes to the Land Use Management Ordinance pertaining to tree cover brought before the Town Council last Monday night for approval. Mary Jane Nirdlinger, announced as the new assistant planning director for the town, made the presentation, along with Curtis Brooks, the town’s urban forester. If approved, the new rules would go into effect March 1, 2011, and the town would report back to council 24 months later.

At present, the town protects individual trees; the new ordinance would require a set percentage of tree canopy, the wingspan, as it were, of the branches at the widest point of a tree at least 20 feet tall. Trees shorter than 20 feet don’t count toward the canopy; neither do trees planted in a Department of Transportation right of way. No exemption is given for ponds or meadows. Would developers be forced to drain ponds to make room for trees or break up a meadow by salting it with trees, Post asked. The revised ordinance doesn’t account for trees that will grow to taller than 20 feet but aren’t there yet, and it ignores the value of understory trees, Post said, like crape myrtles and redbuds that never will reach a height of 20 feet but add beauty to the landscape. Trees compete for water and light; covering 40 percent of the land with tall trees would likely prevent smaller trees from thriving. Post also recommended feedback to council after 6 months, not 2 years.

Radway, who left his own birthday party to wait for a chance to address council, pointed out the fuzzy language of the ordinance that could cause consternation down the line. Some parts of the ordinance are only “recommended” while others are “required.” In Radway’s experience, anything marked “recommended” will be ignored. If a parcel of land has no trees on it before development, do some have to be planted? Or does the ordinance apply only to the maximum amount of tree canopy that can be removed? The ordinance specifies mitigation fees for developers who don’t comply, but who decides whether the developer can opt to buy out of the canopy cover: town staff, council or developer?

Council member Jim Ward noted the ordinance had no protection for root zones, to which a sheepish Brooks replied that protecting roots out to two-thirds of the drip line goes without saying. Ward countered that the number of dead tree crowns he’s seen around town would argue otherwise. He also recommended that downtown property owners contribute to the tree mitigation fund. (Downtown properties are exempt from the ordinance.) Other council members voiced their concerns, including Sally Greene, who urged that Neighborhood Conservation Districts be allowed to set their own canopy requirements.

The council declined to vote. The matter returns to council on Dec. 6.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Steve Brown

     /  October 4, 2010

    The real problem is that Chapel Hill employs an “urban forester”. Where in the world a little town like this one comes up with such stuff is beyond my imagination. Extreme “eco” at its best.

    To me, this sounds like another opportunity to milk developers (and therefore home buyers) out of money- just like “affordable housing” payments in lieu of building homes. Lord knows it is easier to increase fees than property or sales taxes.

    Thanks for the article, it really made me chuckle.

  2. Frank

     /  October 4, 2010

    I think it’s a great idea. The remaining trees in Chapel Hill is one of the things that sets it apart from just about any other community in the area. Trees also contribute significantly to property values. I think it’s a great idea.

  3. Steve Brown

     /  October 4, 2010

    Well, Frank- without doing a scientific study, I can tell you that the City of Durham sure has a lot of beautiful tree lined areas too. Not sure what makes you think Chapel Hill has better tree coverage than they do- perhaps you have some evidence in support of your claim that you would like to share?

  4. The credibility of the Town on this would be improved if it agreed to voluntarily live by the same kind of rules proposed by the new ordinance.

    There have been plenty of opportunities over the last decade to lead by example.

    When the Town Operations Center was built I asked Council to commit to replacing the removed vegetation by a similar amount either on-site or elsewhere. This was before the Town’s commitment to carbon reduction (C-RED) but would have satisfied our commitment to that effort and maintaining our Town’s environmental quality. Not only did Council reject that more ambitious proposal, the landscaping plan adopted didn’t address the water quality issues to the east of the property. Turns out that the TOC’s first round of landscaping failed miserably and the replacement vegetation apparently is struggling due to inadequate maintenance. It would have turned out cheaper and more effective to go with the alternative.

    Each time I ran for office I made a commitment to push the Town to lead by example. In 2007, as Southern Community Park was being clear cut not only for playing fields but large paved lots (with attendant impermeable surface), I underlined at a WCHL candidate forum that Council had once again rejected a call to replant an equivalent amount of vegetation there or elsewhere. When I argued that the Council candidates who were trumpeting their adoption of C-RED and their “care” for the environment were not following through, Mayor Foy chastised me by saying I wanted to “plant trees on the soccer field”.

    A bit sour and petty of him but, more to the point, given opportunities to “walk the talk” on tree protection, carbon reduction, stream protection, etc. the Town has not taken some simple steps to lead by example.

    There are some very strong elements to the canopy protection ordinance – moving off a per tree approach makes sense in a lot of context for instance – but, as Jim and others pointed out, it needs some more work before being adopted. For one, the question of tree health and type instead of concentrating exclusively on canopy.

    Even before that, though, Council has another opportunity to lead by example with the Lot $$$$5 project. I asked, numerous times, that the Town commit to replacing the trees we are losing there with an equivalent amount of C-RED appropriate vegetation elsewhere. Doing so would certainly increase their credibility, maybe help tweak the final form of the ordinance and even ease its passage.

  5. BGK

     /  October 5, 2010

    They probably got some ideas here: and/or here:

    Is Arbor Day ‘extreme eco’ then? A ‘made-up, Hallmark holiday’? Try telling that to the City of Raleigh and the thousand or so people that plant trees community-wide every spring.

    Many of the municipalities and institutions that are aware of the importance of trees in our communities and the value citizens place on them develop and fund efforts to maintain and increase tree canopy, including partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation and employing urban forestry best management practices.

    When compared to the CCRs in larger and more saliently – smaller – municipalities, ToCH isn’t proposing anything more extreme, cost prohibitive or anti-development than any other group concerned about proactive planning.

    Those ‘beautiful tree lined areas’ praised in Durham? Durham has one of those problematic urban foresters too…

  6. George C

     /  October 5, 2010

    What has repeatedly been said, but the naysayers continue to ignore, is the fact that the push to revise the Town’s tree ordinance came about several years ago when the Town considered four requests for creating Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD) overlay zones. During the process for creating the standards for each of these NCDs the residents said that one of the things they wanted to see in their NCD standards was enhanced tree protection. And in each case they were told that since the Town was considering revision of the existing tree ordinance the enhanced protections they were seeking could/would be incorporated into any proposed revision.

    The process to revise the existing tree ordinance was/is directly connected to the requests from the citizens of Chapel Hill for enhanced tree protection. This isn’t, as has been suggested by some, the case of government looking for something to do – this is the case of government responding to direct requests from its citizens.