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Planning Commission backs removal of heritage pecan for development

Monday, September 16, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

With approval from the Planning Commission, an East Austin property owner has gotten the go-ahead to remove a heritage tree that he says is interfering with development plans.


Developer Austin Stowell sought 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 Planning Commission approved the variance that would allow him to remove the tree in a vote of 7-0. Commissioners James Nortey and Alfonso Hernandez were absent. The variance was also recommended by the Environmental Board. (See In Fact Daily, August 27)


Though the commission members approved the variance unanimously, some did pause to consider the impact of including the condition of the tree in determining whether it prevented reasonable use of the property, which would be a reason for its removal under city code.


Under the current Heritage Tree Ordinance (which is in the process of being revised) variances may be granted for removal of trees that meet certain criteria. As City Arborist Keith Mars explained, some of that criteria is largely subjective.


“Reasonable use is in the eye of the beholder. Reasonable use is not a legal decision,” said Mars. “Going off that logic, not only have we looked at this tree and said, ‘eh, it’s more-or-less in the middle of a lot.’ We’ve also taken into consideration the condition of the tree.”


In this case, the arborist has determined the tree is in poor health, and reaching the end of its natural life.


“It’s not reasonable to preserve this tree, given the condition of the tree. Thus, it prevents reasonable use of the property,” said Mars.


Commissioner Jean Stevens said that she was in favor of the variance request, but had a problem with using the “reasonable use” criteria based on the condition of the tree and the precedent it might set.


Commissioner Brian Roark had no such concerns.


“I’m not concerned about the precedent at all. I think it’s a great precedent… that is applying common sense to the criteria,” said Roark.


Mars explained that pecan trees are typically found near creeks and rivers, and that is where they tend to thrive. This tree is located in an uplands environment, which does not suited it. Mars said that the tree’s condition was typical of pecans in upland Austin, which have been stressed by the region’s prolonged drought and extreme temperatures.


“My guess is that it is not reasonable to expect this tree to live beyond five years,” said Mars. “Under these existing conditions it is unlikely for the tree to survive, and that is with or without development occurring.”


Mars explained that not all trees are created equal, and were the tree in question a 40-inch live oak in excellent condition, the city would go to much greater lengths to preserve it.


In this case, though the city code allows the city to seek up to 300 percent in mitigation for the removal of a heritage tree, if the tree is removed it will be replaced with 100 percent of the inches lost – 30 inches of new trees to be planted across the 10 adjacent properties.


The city’s boards and commissions have made few exceptions to the Heritage Tree Ordinance since it was established in 2010


The pecan is located on one of 10 lots purchased from the city by Stowell. He plans to develop all 10 lots as three-story row houses.

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