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Council to consider proposal for enhanced protection of trees

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

The Austin City Council is getting ready to decide how Austin can better protect and cultivate one of the area’s most important natural resources — trees.


City Environmental Officer Pat Murphy last week outlined several amendments to existing ordinances that would make it more difficult to remove large trees and require more trees in large parking areas and residential lots.


The proposed new protections have three key elements:

  1. Creation of a “heritage” tree category for large native trees with trunk diameters of 24 inches or more.
  2. Requiring developers to add more trees in large parking lots.
  3. Requiring new residential subdivisions preserve or plant at least three trees per lot.


The enhanced protections Murphy outlined amounted to a sneak peak for the Council, which is scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on the tree amendments at this week’s meeting. The hearing is one of several set fro 6pm Thursday.


The “heritage tree” designation would include many of the largest native trees – many varieties of large oak, pecan, walnut, elm, maple and other trees. Currently, the city’s tree ordinance protects trees that have diameters of 19 inches or more without regard to type of tree. The heritage trees cover the longest-living trees and they would have more protections from ever being removed. Property owners, for example, would need an administrative variance before one could ever be removed and the city would require mandatory replacements of trees if they were.


We believe this is much stricter standard and a higher bar to meet for ‘heritage’ trees,” Murphy told Council members.


The new requirements were developed with input from the city’s tree task force, home builders, real estate officials, contractors, the Urban Forestry Board and others, Murphy said.


But the tree protections stop short of requiring public input before removing one of the heritage trees, a fact that several Council Members questioned, given highly publicized recent cases in which large trees were removed in the Oak Hill and Zilker Park areas.


Murphy said that the staff studied whether to require public notification whenever a tree is removed and whether to allow neighbors to appeal decisions. But those options were discarded as unworkable.


“We believe that will result in every removal going to appeal and that would be burdensome,” Murphy said.


The ordinance wouldn’t change the penalties for removing a protected tree within the city’s limits: the misdemeanor crime includes a fine of up to $2,000 per tree. More typically, city officials require planting new trees instead of fines, Murphy said.


Council Member Laura Morrison said one issue that is “problematic is that the requirements for a variance [to remove a tree] are open for interpretation so we may need to have the public weigh in.”


John Paul Moore, a member of a city tree task force that advised Council in 2006, criticized the proposals for not being strong enough. He said they don’t address the task force’s two chief recommendations: first, allowing citizens to have a voice in the city’s decisions on removal of trees and extending the tree protections to trees as small as 10 inches in diameter.


“This doesn’t get us there,” Moore said.


The new protections also would require developers to plant more trees on large parking lots, adding shaded areas by requiring additional medians filled with trees.


Council Member Brewster McCracken questioned whether this requirement was “at cross purposes” with other city goals, such as redeveloping large commercial sites – including those with big ugly parking lots — in inner-city areas. Murphy said staff would have flexibility to work with redevelopers in such cases.


Finally, several Council Members questioned the uniform requirement that each lot – regardless of size — have a minimum of three trees. Mayor-elect Lee Leffingwell, Council Member Randi Shade and McCracken suggested that the smallest residential lots – SF4a lots in city zoning parlance — might not have enough room for three trees.


Murphy indicated that the staff could rework this element. He said city officials had considered a sliding scale depending on the size of a lot but discarded that as unworkable. “We thought it [three trees] was an average of what would work on most lots,” he said.

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