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Heritage Ordinance brings large trees protection, attention

Thursday, May 6, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The passage of Austin’s Heritage Tree Ordinance, according to city officials, has meant that large, existing trees finally are being considered as a factor in planning projects, the same way setbacks, impervious cover, and parking requirements have been regarded as factors in the past.


That takes trees to a new level, chief arborist Michael Embesi told a joint meeting of the Environmental Board and the Parks and Recreation Board Monday. The new ordinance put heritage trees front and center during the design of future projects.


“We’re seeing trees as part of that discussion more than ever before,” Embesi told commissioners. “I’m happy and encouraged to report to you.”


The new ordinance, passed in February, has produced 30 requests for removal of trees greater than 30 inches in diameter. Of those trees, 20 were permitted for removal, due to poor condition and another 10 had some type of resolution where the tree could eventually be preserved.


“On the remaining 10, we had some type of resolution where we were able to protect the root zone, and we were able to actually preserve the tree,” Embesi told the small crowd at the Zilker Botanical Gardens.


In his presentation, Embesi walked through the history of the ordinance and the two years of discussion on enhanced review of trees that are larger than 30 inches in diameter, which now require a review of various boards and council before being approved for removal.


Embesi also provided a defense for recent media reports about a homeowner who wanted a 27-inch tree removed from a yard. The city’s defense has been that two engineers who looked at the property saw no danger to the homeowner’s supposed claims that the roots of the tree might actually cause foundation issues for her property.


“The tree in question was a very large live oak, 27 inches in diameter,” Embesi said. “This house had a patio that was poured on top of the root floor, which cracked, but the patio did not necessarily present the structural integrity portion of the foundation itself.”


Embesi, answering question from the audience, noted that the cost of removing a heritage tree was high. If a tree with a 30-inch diameter was approved, then 90 inches of new growth has to be planted, either on the same lot or elsewhere.


He also noted that illegal removal of a tree now came with a $2,000 penalty and that those who removed more than 30 percent of an existing tree’s canopy also could be fined under city ordinance.


During a question-and-answer session, Embresi acknowledged that other departments were not always as gentle as his own, such as tree trimming after a storm.


“We still have to educate and guide city staff,” Embresi admitted.


The city arborist does have the ability to red tag projects, Embresi agreed, but rarely exhibits the tendency to delay construction for a full month once a project is determined to be out of compliance.


Asked directly about his staff, Embesi said he had three subordinates: One focuses on oak wilt; a second focuses on single-family construction sites; and a third deals with Embesi’s day-to-day requests.  A fourth person is planned to be added next budget cycle to deal with tree requests.

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