Dallas Wants to be a Green City, So Why Not Save Some Trees?

By Alexa Schirtzinger
Dallas, TX (March 19, 2009)- The city of Dallas’ tree ordinance requires that when a landowner cuts down protected trees- trees of certain species that are more than 8 inches thick- he or she has must “mitigate” for the cut trees in one of three ways: replanting, paying into a reforestation fund or donating trees to the city. The landowner, however, can claim a “special exception” to mitigation if he or she can prove to the city that replanting “will unreasonably burden” the property’s use and that taking the exception won’t harm neighboring property.

Marlin Atlantis sought an exception based on what it said was a prior agreement it had reached with the Dallas city attorney to satisfy its mitigation obligation by donating to the city as parkland a wooded ravine on the western edge of Grady Niblo.
Bracken and his neighbors, sick of dealing with silt in their sewer system and the dust rising from the empty land next door, hoped the city would see it their way and deny the developer an exception.
In November 2007, the Dallas Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected Marlin Atlantis’ bid for an exception from the replanting requirement. In 2008, Marlin Atlantis’ lender, Graham Investments Inc., foreclosed on the property, and that August, Graham brought a similar case before the board, whose ruling created a unique mitigation arrangement that attempted to satisfy the residents and the lender. According to Joe Graham, president of Graham Investments, his company has “spent a tremendous amount of time and money trying to do the right thing,” including paying out “over $450,000 so far” to bring the property into compliance.
The tangible effects of that half-million seem scant: a thin layer of black dirt seeded with grass has been spread to cover the white caliche and slow erosion, and a pitiful line of oak and ash trees has been planted atop a levee at the far end of the property. Several of these trees tremble at rakish angles, their thin trunks no match for the wind that now buffets this treeless plain. Their roots- some of them still coiled in the ball like those of an unplanted tree- are unable to penetrate the hard, white rock and have done little to stanch soil erosion. Bracken says that dirt and rocks still fill the roads and clog the sewers when it rains, and city officials who might monitor compliance with the ruling are a rare sight at the moonscape.
This seems to contradict City Hall’s stated desire to recast Dallas as “the greenest city in America”- or so proclaimed Mayor Tom Leppert last January when the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the city of Dallas for its use of renewable power. City officials seem eager to promote eco-friendly activities. The Sustainable Skylines Initiative, a joint federal, state, and local effort to improve the city’s air quality, attracted science luminaries to its Dallas conference this March, and Earth Day and Arbor Day celebrations abound here in April. But just how serious is the city about changing its support for developers and their antiquated clear-build-sell mentality-one that views trees as obstacles to be gotten rid of, or aesthetically pleasing amenities that can raise the price of their expansive subdivisions or high-rise condos?
The city talks a good game. In the past few years, local tree activists such as Steve Houser have made inroads at City Hall, beginning with the establishment of an Urban Forestry Advisory Committee, which instructs the city on the care and planting of trees and advocates sound urban forest management practices. The city has endorsed the efforts of the nonprofit Texas Trees Foundation, which this March is scheduled to kickoff its “Road Map to Tree Planning and Planting in Dallas,” an ambitious plan for planting thousands of trees around the city. And the city, as part of the Trinity River Corridor Project, has dedicated bond money to developing the Great Trinity Forest-at more than 6,000 acres, the largest urban hardwood forest in the United States.
Aside from the limited efforts of nonprofits and the advisory committee, there is no coordinated citywide effort to plant, replant, and maintain trees. The lack of an office of urban forestry means that there is no central oversight authority for Dallas’ urban forest. A tree survey, which would inventory the billions of dollars of environmental and financial assets in Dallas’ urban forest, has never made it into the city budget; further, the city’s unwillingness to strengthen its toothless tree ordinance has only exacerbated Dallas’ long and troubled history regarding the stewardship of its trees. And if the city’s response to what happened at Grady Niblo is any indication of its new arboreal consciousness, Dallas has a long way to go before its rhetoric matches its reality.
Even though Houser these days sounds more like an accommodating insider than an outside agitator, the tree activist agenda has had some success at City Hall. In 2006, with the help of a four-year, $100,000 grant from the Texas Forest Service, Dallas hired its first city forester. Karen Woodard currently holds the job and spends much of her time spreading the word about the benefits of trees; at stake right now, she says, is getting the city to fund and implement the management plan for the Great Trinity Forest, which Houser helped draft and provides recommendations for preserving the forest and planting new trees. Stimulus money may help, and private funding for other tree-planting initiatives through organizations such as the Texas Trees Foundation may have more success.
But the city has yet to fund a tree inventory and still has no budget dedicated to urban forestry. Instead, tree management and ordinance enforcement fall under a patchwork of departments ranging from public works to police.
“We’re still way behind places like Milwaukee or Chicago, which have multimillion-dollar forestry programs,” says Courtney Blevins, the Texas Forest Service’s regional urban forester for the Fort Worth area. But Dallas’ tree-consciousness is growing, says Blevins. “We are a long way from where we were 10 years ago.”
While there remains a divide between the city’s words and actions, Mayor Leppert continues to chant his “greenest city in America” mantra. In a memo to council members accompanying the Urban Forestry Advisory Committee’s annual report in February, Leppert wrote: “Since Dallas trees and forests represent billions of dollars in green infrastructure that can grow in value when properly maintained, your continued support of the committee’s initiatives will leave a legacy of a greener city.” Yet the committee’s most sought-after initiatives-an office of urban forestry and a tree inventory-seem to get only lip service.
Related Resources:
Dallas Observer- Dallas Wants to be a Green City, So Why Not Save Some Trees?
Leaf by Leaf- Facts about Texas Trees
Texas Trees Foundation
Dallas Urban Forest Advisory Committee 2008 Annual Report
Dallas committee studying how trees grow money
Texas Trees Foundation Gateway Forest Park