City readies tree code for vote

By Lowell Brown
Denton, TX (February 28, 2009)- Denton’s proposed new tree code is still getting pruned. City workers are polishing the proposal so the Planning and Zoning Commission can vote on it in coming weeks, following more than a year of talk and revisions. A City Council review would follow. In the meantime, the city is still welcoming feedback.


Some said the plan leaned too heavily toward tree replacement, rather than preservation, and complained it would allow clear-cutting in some cases. Others said it still lacked enough incentives for developers to save trees. Residents had plenty to say- good and bad- during a sparsely attended public meeting Tuesday at City Hall.
Like the current code, the proposal would require a permit for many tree removals. The applicant would submit an inventory of trees on the site and a plan for mitigating their removal, either by planting new trees on- or off-site or paying into a city-managed tree fund – options already offered to developers.
The proposed code also would:
* Remove existing protections for so-called “secondary trees” such as mesquite, bois d’arc, honey locust, hackberry, and cottonwood, and require a permit to remove all other trees, unless the site fell under one of the code’s exemptions.
* Allow clear-cutting with mitigation. (On lots larger than 20,000 square feet, or about half an acre, this would require a variance from the Planning and Zoning Commission, a seven-member panel appointed by the City Council.)
* Create new credits and incentives for developers to save protected trees, especially on environmentally sensitive land.
* Require the council to spend tree mitigation money only to preserve existing trees, plant and maintain new trees, inventory trees, apply a forest management plan, or educate residents and developers on the value of trees.
The code’s protections wouldn’t apply to diseased or damaged trees, trees removed for a public utility project, tree nurseries, trees on government property, or trees within public utility easements The code also wouldn’t apply to lots 2 acres or less in size used for single-family or duplex housing.
The proposal is a pared-down 13 pages, compared with the current 32-page code. A separate, 65-page standards manual would supplement it, offering information and drawings on tree surveying, planting and care, along with more details on code requirements. “The real how-to part is in a separate document, and that really helps to clarify this,” city planner Chuck Russell said. It was unclear whether the standards manual would carry the same weight as the ordinance, but Russell said it would be more than just a guideline.
The manual calls for a citywide tree canopy of 30 percent, but the actual level of tree cover required on a site would vary depending on its zoning. Officials don’t know Denton’s current tree canopy percentage, said E.J. Cochrum, the city’s urban forester. They are looking at ways to calculate it, including a possible collaboration with the University of North Texas, he said.
Residents weigh in
Ed Soph, who leads the local environmental group Citizens for Healthy Growth, said officials should wait to pass a new code until they know the amount of tree cover in Denton. “It seems it would be futile to pass a tree ordinance without having this information first and using it as a template for the ordinance itself,” Soph said.
Soph, one of six residents to speak during Tuesday’s public meeting, also stressed the role of trees in absorbing carbon dioxide, a gas that contributes to global warming. Soph encouraged city workers to study Austin’s tree code, which he called more thorough than Denton’s.
Tim May, a landscape architect, suggested that Denton and other cities work with the North Central Texas Council of Governments to craft more standardized codes, so developers in the region could know what to expect.
Peggy La Point, who leads the national Sierra Club’s local chapter, said Denton residents expect protections for all trees, regardless of species. “It’s been kind of sad to see some trees treated as ‘trash trees,'” she said. La Point also called on the city to create a committee to advise city leaders on tree issues, including the use of tree fund money. Such a committee- absent from the current proposal- appeared in some earlier drafts, but city staff members feared it would add too much bureaucracy.
Ongoing process
The issue of tree protection has vexed and polarized the city for years. Residents called for stronger protections in 2003 after a developer razed more than 100 oak trees to build apartments on the old Flow Hospital site near UNT. Council members responded with the current code in October 2004, but tree advocates say it encourages mitigation over protection. Developers say they could preserve more trees if the code offered more flexibility in site design.
An urban forestry consulting firm released four major drafts of a revised code last year, but city officials picked them apart. A council vote was planned last fall, but the plan stalled at the planning commission after some commissioners said it was confusing and infringed on personal property rights. The latest draft arose out of meetings with commissioners since then.
Related Resources:
Denton Record Chronicle- City readies tree code for vote
Burditt Draft Tree Code Amendments
Denton 2009 Proposed Tree Code
Denton Tree Protection Standards Manual
Denton Site Design Standards
City of Denton
Texas Trees Foundation