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Environmental Board approves rare variance to remove heritage pecan tree

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Environmental Board narrowly approved a variance last week to remove a heritage pecan tree in East Austin which a city arborist says is in poor condition.


Developer Austin Stowell is seeking a variance from the city that would allow him to remove a 30-inch diameter heritage pecan from his property at 1015 East 12th Street. The tree is 55 feet tall with a canopy spread of 60 feet.


The Environmental Board supported his request, voting 4-3 to allow the variance. Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and Board Members Mary Ann Neely, James Schissler, and Robert Deegan voted in favor of the variance. Board Members Jennifer Walker, Marisa Perales and Robin Gary voted against the variance.


If the variance is granted by the Planning Commission, the owner agrees to plant 30 inches of native trees on his 10 lots. The Heritage Tree Ordinance currently allows mitigation greater than that, but staff has reduced the requirement to 100 percent replacement in this case due to the condition of the tree.


Since its passage in 2010, very few exceptions have been made by the city’s boards, commissions and the Council to the Heritage Tree Ordinance. Mitigation costs can be expensive, running into the thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to a developer. But violations can be even more expensive, costing in some cases as much as $1,000 per caliper inch of tree trunk to the offender, plus the cost of replacing any lost trees.


The pecan tree is on one of 10 lots purchased by Stowell from the city. He told the board that the city had intended to develop the lots, once, and said they were sold with the understanding that they were developable.


Stowell said location of the pecan in the middle of one of those lots prevented the reasonable use of that lot. He plans to develop all 10 homes as three-story row-houses. The lot with the tree would not allow that – and would limit building to about 500 square feet, according to Stowell. He plans to build houses that are about 2,000 square feet on all 10 lots. 


City Arborist Keith Mars agreed with this assessment. He also told the board that the condition of the tree was poor. Mars explained the tree did not pose an imminent hazard, but was in decline and would most likely continue to decline due to age, heat stress, drought, and its less-than-ideal location.


“Is it reasonable to preserve this tree? Our answer, unequivocally, is no,” said Mars. “With or without construction it is highly likely that this tree will die in the near future – within the next five years.”


“I would be very, very surprised if this tree is there five years from now,” said Mars. “We have to take those things into consideration. We have to.”


Stowell said that they would have taken a different approach if the tree were a heritage live oak.


“Trees do have life spans,” said Stowell. “This is a tree that has been damaged over the years and is approaching the end of its life span. So we think, in terms of community benefit, we are developing these (lots) long-term. Eventually that tree isn’t going it make it, but the property we are going to build is going to last much longer.”


Mars said that in an ideal environment, pecan trees can live for 200 or 300 years. In an area like 12th Street, they could live up to 150 years if properly taken care of. He noted that the tree in question had not been properly cared for, and estimated its age at about 50 to 75 years.


Gary, who opposed the variance, suggested reallocating the lot lines to change where the tree was, calling it “a really easy Tetris maneuver,” that would shift the tree from the middle of the lot 1015 East 12th Street, but the idea failed to gain traction with the majority of the board.

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