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Council approves two tree protection measures

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

Austin City Council on Thursday unanimously approved two measures requiring more trees be planted or saved during development, but sent city staff back to develop a new plan to protect the city’s most mature trees.


The actions put a spotlight on the value of tree canopies, increasingly viewed as a precious resource that improves air quality and real estate values and provides energy savings, carbon sinks, wildlife habitat, and improved quality of life.


The first of the three tree-strengthening measures met no opposition. It requires more leafy medians in large parking lots to create shade, and mitigate the “urban heat island” effect that occurs when you have large areas of pavement.


“For every two rows of parking, there would be a median area with trees planted,” said Patrick Murphy, Environmental Officer for the city. That’s an upgrade from the current requirement of a median area every three rows. Council approved the ordinance without changes after staffers assured Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken that they would have the flexibility to make sure that it wouldn’t impede the redevelopment of urban areas.


A second ordinance requires new residential subdivisions to have more trees per lot.  City staff initially proposed that all residential lots have at least three trees, no matter the lot size, an upgrade from the two that homebuilders are now required to provide. Homebuilders without enough space to plant additional trees on a home site have the option of planting trees within a subdivision – say in a park and along medians – or, as a last resort, contributing to a city tree fund.


But officials with the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin objected to the requirement, saying it would increase the cost of developing small lots and runs counter to the city’s goal of encouraging affordable housing. Root barriers cost $500 to $1,500 per tree to protect home foundations and driveways, said Wes Peoples of the builders’ association. Moreover, he said that “from a social equity standpoint” it was unfair to require someone with a one-acre lot to plant only as many trees as owners of the tiniest lots – eight of which fit to an acre.


The ordinance was approved after Mayor-elect Lee Leffingwell made a motion to modify the language so that only two trees were required on the smallest residential lots (those zoned SF-4A).


The third and potentially most contentious measure — the creation of a new “heritage” tree category — was pulled in the wake of some fierce lobbying by tree advocates.


City staff proposed the “heritage” tree category to strengthen the city’s existing tree protection ordinance, which has been in place since 1983 and offers protection for all trees of 19 inches or more in diameter. The heritage designation would offer more protections for mature native trees – such as large oak, pecan, walnut, elm, and maple varieties – with diameters of 24 inches or more.


But some tree advocates said the new plan could actually weaken the law, because it didn’t allow for public input in cases when one of these heritage trees was slated for removal for “acceptable” reasons, such as for impeding utilities or encroaching on an existing structure.


Leffingwell made the motion to delay the proposal for consideration until Oct. 22, when a newly-appointed tree stakeholder group could bring forward proposals to protect heritage trees.

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