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Groups seek ways to amend tree ordinance in Central Business District

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

With months remaining until a survey of downtown heritage trees can be conducted, the Downtown Commission and a specially formed Environmental Board subcommittee are  discussing how the Heritage Tree Ordinance might be modified to better serve the Central Business District.


The ordinance went into effect in 2010 but only recently came under fire after interpretations by the Planning Commission and Environmental Board denied a variance to remove a heritage pecan tree at Bowie Street, effectively prohibiting the construction of a 400-foot residential building in the CBD.


City Arborist Keith Mars was on hand at the Downtown Commission meeting to lend some perspective.


“We’ve looked at nearly 1000 heritage trees in less than two years. We’ve looked at actually 885 on tree permits and hundreds more, probably the same number if not more, on site plans,” said Mars. “Of those thousands of trees, there have been five cases that have come before the Environmental Board and land use commission.”


Two of the cases involved trees that did not warrant protection due to their condition, one case involved mitigating damage to a heritage tree, and one recent case was ultimately shelved after developers came up with a different site plan that would preserve the tree.


Mars noted that in the vast majority of cases, his department finds ways to work with developers to preserve the tree without scrapping the project. However, downtown presents more difficult circumstances. “When it’s single-family, we can put in 12-inch piers, rather than a slab, but when we’re looking at putting in a 400-foot structure, there is no such thing as being delicate with construction,” said Mars.


Some board members seemed frustrated, even mystified, by the conversation.


“A tree is similar to a house, or anything else you own on your property. … There are buildings downtown, but if a developer wants to come in and tear down a building and build a bigger building, he doesn’t have to pay the city to tear down that building,” said Environmental Board Member Jim Schissler. “I don’t see how we can talk about paying the city hundreds of thousands of dollars to cut down a tree that is on your own property.


“This, to me, is Urbanism 101 — that trees, no matter how large or small, in the CBD either belong in parks or on the sidewalks,” said Downtown Commission Member Bryan Cady. Cady went on to suggest that if a tree on private land demands preservation, the city should buy that land and turn it into a park, or find some other solution.


“Some other solution” is exactly what both boards, and other interested parties, are looking for. With downtown development facing existing restrictions related to capitol view corridors, historic landmarks, and limited space, encouraging downtown development has become much easier in theory than in practice.


Executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance Charlie Betts told the subcommittee that perhaps they should look into positively encouraging tree preservation, rather than just reacting punitively. Betts suggested “an incentive approach to truly iconic trees downtown, like maybe some kind of tax abatement for a property owner who would commit to the long-term care and preservation of an iconic tree,” noting the bar for iconic status could be set high.


The subcommittee also discussed the possibility of revamping mitigation. Both sides of the issue seem to find the current mitigation inadequate, in terms of predictability, effect, and cost.


At root, both sides seemed to want to preserve heritage trees downtown. Downtown Commissioner Robert Knight worried that the ordinance might have the unintended consequence of not only inhibiting the growth of buildings but the growth of trees as well.


“There are some unintended consequences when you say, ‘We need to be planting trees.’ Those people who might otherwise plant trees may say, ‘Oh, this tree might become a problem in the future, and so I think I’ll plant grass, or I’ll plant shrubs.’  So we need to pay a  little bit of attention to that as well,” said Knight.


Still on the table, also, is changing the appeals process so that it would involve City Council, instead of dead-ending at the Planning Commission, as is currently the case.

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