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Environmental Board rejects variance to remove heritage tree

Monday, March 11, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans to develop more student housing in the University of Texas West Campus area hit a potential snag at the Environmental Board last week. The board voted to recommend denial of a variance that would allow removal of a heritage tree that owners say would prevent their vision from being realized.


The property is comprised of three lots, which are located at 507 West 23rd Street. The current zoning allows for a 175-foot building height, and 100 percent impervious cover. University Co-Op, which owns the property, is looking to sell the lots to developers in order to build an apartment building. However, a 31-inch diameter heritage pecan tree could thwart those plans. As a protected tree, the owners must obtain a variance from the city if they wish to remove it.


An evaluation by city arborist Keith Mars showed only minor defects in the tree, and recommended all transplanting options be exhausted before considering removal. With no site plan, and unconvinced that all design and transplanting options had, in fact, been considered, the Environmental Board voted to deny the variance. The board voted 4-2 to deny the variance on the tree, with Board Members James Schissler and Bob Anderson voting in opposition. Board Member Mary Ann Neely was absent.


The property is located in the University Neighborhood Overlay, whose neighborhood plan Environmental Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell helped create. She explained that while the intent of the plan was to increase density and student housing, it was not to create a “wind-tunnel of tall buildings.”


“West Campus used to be very quaint. It turned into kind of a ghetto situation after a while. And one of the reasons we did the neighborhood plan with all the increased density was to reform that whole area, and provide housing for a whole lot of students that were sitting on Riverside and communing to campus,” said Maxwell. “I’m a proponent for density on campus. I’m also a proponent of the trees in West Campus.”


“We have a conflict between an urban redevelopment scheme and a tree preservation scheme,” said Mike McHone, who was representing the property owner.


McHone explained that the co-op was looking to convert what they consider excess property in order to help face challenges brought on by changes in the publishing industry. Though they would like to sell the land for development, the tree is right in the middle of the lot.


“If the tree were located on the property lines, or close to the property lines, the building could be notched,” said McHone. “In this particular case, it’s just in the wrong place.”


The heritage tree ordinance allows trees to be moved but, explained McHone, the cost of relocating this tree would be $146,000, which he said “really took the incentive away.”


“The rents in that building will be top dollar. No one is going to go bankrupt on this,” said Maxwell, who noted the lot was just one block from campus. “The owner happens to be the University Co-op. These people have been around a long time. They’re a viable entity. They contribute to the university. They’re a fine group. We can also have trees.”


McHone proposed that two times the required mitigation ($36,000) be paid to a fund specific to the University Neighborhood Parking Benefit District that is used to improve sidewalks and streetscapes in the area, instead of paying $18,000 to the urban forest fund.


Board Member Marisa Perales thought this proposal was not relevant to the board’s charge.


“It appears to be that our job on the Environmental Board is to look for ways to preserve trees, and I just don’t see how consideration of additional funds for sidewalks in any way impacts our decision-making process… I just don’t think that should be part of our deliberations,” said Perales. “It seems to me that based on the criteria in our heritage tree ordinance, we should endeavor to save the tree.”


Anderson said that while he felt the mitigation currently in place with the ordinance was not adequate in general, this particular pecan was not of a high enough quality to transplant. Schissler indicated that the required mitigation for the tree’s removal ($18,000) was adequate.


The variance request next heads to the Planning Commission for their consideration.

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