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Environmental Board issues protest vote over Heritage Tree Ordinance

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Instead of a recommendation about whether the city should allow removal of a heritage tree at the site of a proposed downtown skyscraper, the Environmental Board last week opted to send a strong message about what they see as inadequacies in the Heritage Tree Ordinance.


The board voted 5-0, with Board Member Bob Anderson recused and one position vacant, to send the “no recommendation” on to the Planning Commission, after several meetings of a subcommittee formed to explore the ordinance.


“The recommendation is no recommendation, and there’s an intention behind that,” said Chair Mary Gay Maxwell. “The point of no recommendation is to send a signal to the Planning Commission that this is a very difficult issue. And we’re going to be hit with this again and again and the downtown plan really needs to be looked at with a better eye towards preserving Heritage Trees and towards figuring out ways to develop around that.”


“To me, it’s a stronger position than either denying the variance request or granting it, because it forces the discussion to take place in the Planning Commission, where it should take place. We don’t have authority over all the zoning questions you were asking about; they do. We also don’t have the authority to say, ‘Let’s have $50,000 mitigation.’ That would be knocked down in a heartbeat,” said Maxwell.


Will Marsh, a representative of Cerco Development, Inc was seeking a variance to remove a 57-foot heritage pecan in order to build a 400-foot building downtown at Third and Bowie. The applicant stated that altering the plans to preserve the tree would result in a $700,000 annual loss in local tax revenues, among other financial hardships. Moreover, he argued that the project was in line with city goals.


“We feel our project is in line with the overarching goals of the city. Dense developments like this have a lot of benefits relative to suburban projects. They use less energy, less water, they have less new infrastructure required they have less traffic, less air-pollution,” said Marsh.


When the case last came before the Environmental Board, members were torn about preserving the tree or furthering the city’s stated density goals, and seemed dissatisfied with the $19,200 in mitigation the applicant would be required to pay under the ordinance.


“In developing the Heritage Tree Ordinance, I think that it would have been beneficial for the discussion of the downtown density to come up, and what kind of guidance, for us and for what Austin wants to have been written out and discussed in an open, public forum, rather than just decided by this board tonight,” said Vice Chair Robin Gary. “This is a bigger issue.”


Board Member Robert Schissler also waxed philosophical.


“I can look out the window and see street trees that are already 30, 40 feet high, and they’ve only been planted three or four years ago,” said Schissler.  “I think as the city grows, and the downtown develops, we will have similar cases to these and it will be a matter of determining what we want the street to look like in 30 years. That’s why they came up with the Great Streets program that required planting the street trees and irrigating so they would have the chance to be heritage trees in 30 years.”


“As far as I’m concerned, it puts a tremendous pressure on us, without having these points clarified and worked with in a very direct way, because it’s been brought up several times,” said Maxwell.


The case had been postponed in order to allow a subcommittee, formed after the previous hearing, to explore the board’s options in regards to the relatively new heritage tree ordinance. The committee met three times to explore the options, and determined that moving the tree and building around the tree were both costly options that did not guarantee the tree’s survival.


In her motion for ‘no recommendation,’ Maxwell addressed the board’s current options for mitigation.


“The Planning Commission has authority to place additional mitigation on the variance request that the Environmental Board does not have the authority to do,” said Maxwell. “Suggestions for possible action by the Planning Commission could include increased mitigation for this tract, such as a mitigation amount that exceeds the staff recommendation of $19,200 for the heritage pecan tree, because the formula from which the amount is derived is inadequate.” 


Maxwell expressed regret at having to single out a specific case to address these issues, noting that “no one wants to have to beat the dog.” She called the timing of the case “mind boggling,” in that it threatened to take away shade in the midst of triple-digit days with no rain in sight


“The canopy of the area is in danger of being lost, and there needs to be an effort to retain the canopy of the downtown area that both allow for dense development and retain the cultural aesthetic and environmental qualities necessary for a livable environment downtown,” said Maxwell.

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