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Environmental Board postpones action on heritage tree variance

Monday, June 13, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

At last month’s meeting, the Environmental Board put plans to remove a 63-foot tall heritage tree in the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) district on hold.


Developers are seeking a variance to chop down the tree in order to build a 140-unit multi-family building on the 900 block of West 26th Street. The pecan is 30.5 inches in diameter, which classifies it as a heritage tree. To legally remove the heritage tree, the developer must first get a variance from the city.


In this case, the variance request does not meet the criteria for city arborist approval.


Armbrust and Brown attorney Richard Suttle was representing the client. He explained to the board that he was “pinch hitting” for a vacationing Lynn Ann Carley.


Suttle said that the variance was necessary in order to safely build an on-site parking garage. He argued that a change in design could compromise the tree regardless, leaving the site with “bad design and no tree.”


“Neither I nor my client want to be the first to bring you one of these variances, but this is an instance where we’re hoping that we can convince you that with increased plantings under UNO, and the increased mitigation, that we end up with more trees at the end of this process and actually better trees and safer trees and an UNO design,” said Suttle.


If the variance were granted, developers would be required to mitigate the removal of the tree at 300 percent of its value. The mitigation could be in the form of approximately $7,000, which would be paid to the Urban Forest Replenishment Fund, or 90.5 inches of trees planted in the area.


Keith Mars with the Planning and Development Review Department also recommended that developers should hire a certified arborist to manage remaining on-site trees, and work with the Parks and Recreation Board to develop a tree care or tree planting program within the Shoal Creek Watershed.


The UNO district, which was designed to encourage density, was created in 2004. It contains a requirement that a certain number of trees are planted on the streetscape. The proposed site plan is compliant with UNO guidelines.


“In the end, this is an instance where you get the UNO density that you are looking for, and you get driveway design that the traffic guys are looking for. You would lose a nice tree, but if you mitigate and end up with more trees both on this site and off-site,” said Suttle. “All things being equal, you get more pluses than minuses if the tree is gone.”


“Those requirements for the street trees are written into the UNO guidelines. They’re there; it doesn’t matter what you do to that pecan tree,” said Chair Mary Gay Maxwell. “It’s not like you’re doing any big favor here.”


Mary Ingle, co-chair of the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee, read a passage from the UNO design guidelines that advocated preservation of significant existing trees.


“These are really rare and special in this world, and I’m really hoping this developer could work something out to make everybody happy,” said Ingle.


Ultimately, the board postponed action on the case until its June 15 meeting, noting the absence of two members who might be able to parse site plans more effectively.


In the meantime, the board directed staff to create a more specific plan for developers should the variance be granted. “This is such a hot-button issue, it’s good to be precise and to know exactly what it is that is being asked of the applicant,” said Maxwell.

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