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Questions arise over adequacy of city tree ordinance

Thursday, September 1, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission had its chance to host the ongoing fight over the removal of a downtown Heritage Tree, and after hours of discussion and testimony, opted to delay a final decision until their next meeting.


A request for a variance to remove the 57-foot pecan to make way for a 400-foot residential high rise previously received a “no recommendation” from the Environmental Board. The “No recommendation” came along with suggestions that the city consider increasing the standard mitigation and altering the Downtown Plan to include guidelines for Heritage Trees.


Brad Rockwell, an attorney who was involved with drafting the Heritage Tree Ordinance, spoke to the import of the board’s decision.


“This is really the first significant question that’s come up, as to how the Heritage Tree Ordinance applies in the real world, and how it works,” said Rockwell. “It’s not so much this particular tree, but the integrity of the tree ordinance.”


Advocates for the variance emphasized the environmental and community benefits that the city would gain from the project. The proposed building would have approximately 300 residential units, and contribute to density in the Central Business District.


“We’re not arguing that taking down a 60-year-old pecan tree is a good idea in a vacuum. We’re arguing, however, that weighing a single pecan tree against the environmental benefits of the proposed building does not create a difficult choice, at least for me,” said one of the property owners, Perry Lorenz. “Saving this single pecan tree against a truly environmentally sound project seems to be misguided.”


To bolster his claims of environmental responsibility, Lorenz read an email from Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch. The email acknowledged common ground between developers and environmentalists in Austin.


“There is a recognition that balancing the tradeoffs between preservation and development has shifted in favor of high-density, water, energy and traffic saving development in the CBD, that would warrant special exceptions and that would not be supported in other parts of town,” read Lorenz.


Opponents countered Lorenz’s citation of Bunch who also quoted him on the matter.


Tom Hayes, who serves as Vice Chair on the Urban Forestry Board, had this to say, “I also spoke with Bill Bunch last night at some length about this, since he was brought up before. And what we talked about is the variance should not be approved unless first a change to the ordinance itself went to City Council.”


Roy Whaley, vice chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, said he had also spoken with Bunch, and reported to the board that Bunch felt that there should be a separate set of rules for Heritage Trees in the Central Business District, and a different set of mitigation fees as well.


Bunch was not present at the meeting, though he confirmed to In Fact Daily that the quotes looked accurate.


The Planning Commission voted unanimously to continue the case at their next meeting. The commission indicated that in the mean time they would be consulting with staff on the proposed economic benefits of the building, and how retaining the tree would impact those benefits.


Previously the applicant has stated that accommodating the tree would occupy 35 percent of the site and cause $700,000 in annual tax loss.


Jamil Alam with Cerco Development, Inc. made it clear that the variance was not optional to this project.


“There have been some comments that this is a project that can go forward without this tree variance. This project will not go forward. We will drop the site; we will be done. We cannot design the project in an efficient manner with the tree there. I hate to make that comment. It’s just factually correct,” said Alam.


“It’s kind of a false dichotomy. It’s like, ‘give us everything we want on this project, or you’re never going to get a high rise here,’” said Rockwell. “All the Tree Ordinance requires is that you try to do some intelligent design to get the high rise, to get all the downtown values that we want.”

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