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Environmental Board postpones action on heritage tree removal

Monday, July 25, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Faced with what appears to be an unavoidable loss of a heritage tree downtown, the Environmental Board has called a timeout while they explore more appropriate mitigation for the tree. In the meantime, a working group was formed to discuss alternative compensation for the tree’s removal.


“I think that we can do some things as a board that can really emphasize, more, what has already been worked out in the rules of the Heritage Tree Ordinance, in terms of economics and the value of a tree,” said Chair Mary Gay Maxwell. “We can actually make recommendations, as a board, that reflect our value of a tree… and what we would see as a fair mitigation. We can do that. The city cannot do that, but as a board, we can do that.”


Plans to build a 400-foot residential high rise downtown near Fifth and Bowie currently wait on a go-ahead from the board that would allow them to cut down the 57-foot heritage pecan. The established formula that calculates mitigation for the tree would require developers to pay $19,200. This amount did not sit well with the board.


“This is heritage tree versus zoning and I think it’s a very tricky decision to make… Mitigation for this, for removing such a treasure in Austin, hardly seems like $20,000 worth,” said Board Member Robin Gary, who called heritage trees “a pride of our city.”


“These gigantic skyscrapers that are going up are increasing the efficiency of transportation in the area, but it’s a hard balance,” said Gary.


The pecan tree currently thrives, though pavement reaches almost to its trunk, in an area where few such trees remain, making its removal significant.


“Let’s just be honest, in a downtown environment, you are unlikely to see many trees of this size. A landscape tree in a six by six box is highly unlikely to reach that size…Can you simply remove this tree, plant 32 trees around the perimeter of the property, and expect to have the same amount of canopy? It’s probably unlikely,” said Keith Mars, from the Planning and Development Review Department.


Will Marsh, a representative of Cerco Development, Inc., made it clear that plans for the site could not accommodate retention of the tree, which is located towards the center of the lot.


“In order to move forward with the purchase of this property, one of the questions is whether or not we can mitigate for the removal of this tree,” said Marsh.


Marsh noted that the building’s location and size was in keeping with Austin’s “overarching environmental goals” which encourage density in the urban core.


“We do want to densify downtown in the appropriate areas, and we do want to put as many people living downtown as we can and make this a walkable community,” said Austin Sierra Club Vice Chair Roy Waley. “But we can’t stand to walk around if we don’t have trees to shade us, and we can’t stand to walk around if we don’t have air that’s fit to breathe.”


Zoila Vega-Marchena, of the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation, urged the board to “try harder.”


“What we’re talking about here is exactly the definition of a Heritage Tree. It’s something that is irreplaceable. This specimen is something that happens to be majestic and biologically superior,” said Vega. “In spite of the conditions it is living in, it’s doing fine. In spite of the drought, it’s doing fine.”


The board voted 4-1 to postpone the hearing until August 17, with Board Members James Schissler voting against, and Board Member Eva Hernandez absent. Board Member Bob Anderson recused himself due to a conflict of interest, as Marsh is his client.


Marsh told In Fact Daily that he recognized that the Heritage Tree Ordinance was still relatively new (passed in February 2010) and that he understood that going through the process was just part of doing business in Austin.

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