New rule: Builders must save more trees

Charlotte council OKs curbs on removal at apartment complexes, commercial projects and parking lots.

By Steve Harrison
Charlotte, NC (Setember 28, 2010)- In an effort to save Charlotte’s tree canopy, the City Council approved changes to its tree ordinance Monday night that will increase the number of trees that must be saved in commercial development and apartment complexes.

The tree ordinance had been debated for five years, as developers and environmentalists engaged in a tug-of-war over the issue. The council approved the changes by an 8-3 vote, but only after another debate over how the requirements would impact affordable housing.
Council members Warren Turner, a Democrat, voted against the tree ordinance changes, as did Republicans Andy Dulin and Warren Cooskey.
The biggest changes will increase the amount of trees saved on commercial development from 10 to 15 percent, starting in January.
In addition, there will be more trees in parking lots in the future. The ordinance decreases the spacing between trees from 60 to 40 feet in parking lots.
There are some exceptions to the ordinance, and in some cases, developers can pay into a fund instead of planting.
The changes were driven, in some cases, by alarm over the area’s rapid urbanization. It has been estimated that the city has lost half of its tree canopy since 1985, and Mecklenburg County has lost a third of its canopy.
As the tree ordinance changes neared completion, some affordable housing advocates complained that the changes would increase the cost of building and drive up the price of renting.
“We’re really concerned,” said Bill Daleure, president of Avant Garde Real Estate Consulting, which has been an advocate for building low-income housing. “They are layering more costs on providers, and I’m not sure if they can overcome it.”
The tree ordinance changes are among three issues that have been contested, at times, by the development community. In recent years, the city has passed rules for how builders handle stormwater runoff, as well as requirements that require shorter street lengths and sidewalks as part of its Urban Street Design Guidelines.
Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, a Democrat, suggested during the debate Monday night to remove affordable housing from the tree ordinance changes. But City Attorney Mac McCarley said there would be legal problems with that.
Then Dulin suggested that all multifamily housing complexes be removed from the tree ordinance – a proposal that drew groans from some supporters of the changes in the audience. Cannon said he wasn’t willing to do that, and the idea failed.
Council members did vote unanimously to study how the ordinance would impact affordable housing.
Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, said he was in favor of the tougher tree ordinance. Earlier this year, he urged city staff members to be “flexible” when enforcing the new development rules on trees, stormwater and street design. He said that some flexibility could help developers adjust.
He said studies showing that the ordinances and guidelines would increase developer’s costs might overstate the financial impact to developers.
“What troubles me is that the studies are based on worst-case scenarios,” Foxx said. “I have asked (city) staff: Are we applying these rules to the extreme?”
Foxx said there have been times when city staff haven’t been accommodating, but he said that most of the time staff members have given developers flexibility. He said the city can study the impact of the new rules, but he said the city should wait until new projects are built.
Democrat Nancy Carter, who supported the tree changes, said “a trend is reversing itself, slowly but surely. We can add to our population of trees.”
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