Tuesday, October 22, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Downtown tree canopy only 14 percent according to city survey

The long-awaited results of a downtown tree survey prompted by the city’s Heritage Tree Ordinance are in.


Last week, Environmental Board members got their first view of the completed survey, which will be used to help the city’s boards and commissions get a more complete picture of the urban canopy to aid them in making Heritage Tree variance determinations.


City Arborist Michael Embesi said that while the conclusions were still in the process of being validated, it was important to get those results out to boards and commissions and the some 14 city departments who will use it while it was still fresh.


“I think it’s important to use the data quickly,” said Embesi. “The more time that goes by, the more limited value this information is going to have.”


The survey inventoried downtown Heritage Trees as well as trees in the city’s rights-of-way. Overall, the downtown canopy is about 14 percent, compared to an average 30 percent of canopy in other parts of town.


According to the survey, there were about 1,100 Heritage Trees downtown, with about two-thirds of those trees being live oaks or pecans. Some 67 percent of the Heritage Trees are located on private property.


Embesi noted that about 20 percent of the downtown trees are in either “poor, critical or declining condition.”


“I think it’s fair to assume we are going to lose 20 percent of our heritage trees because of their current health,” said Embesi.


On the flip side, there are nearly 1,000 trees that are likely to become Heritage Trees in the next few years whose trunks measure at least 19 inches in diameter.


The survey also looked at about 5,200 trees planted in the rights-of-way, which Embesi explained were important to both the sense of place for downtown, and the space that they filled for pedestrians, cars, and business patrons. Of that population, 600 trees were in poor health.


“I don’t think it’s fair to expect the trees in our rights-of-way to become heritage trees, because of all this competition we have for soil volume. Not only do we have competition for soil volume, but we also have conflicts in the aerial potions of the canopy … It’s hard to believe that many of the trees in our right-of-way will actually grow to have a full canopy,” said Embesi.


The survey also identified about 1,300 vacant spaces that could be home to more downtown trees. Board Member Robert Deegan expressed hope that these spaces could be used for mitigation in the future, and optimism that the city could work to loosen bureaucratic processes involved in planting trees on public land that currently make that option difficult for developers.


“Otherwise, the only entity that is ever going to put a tree on that spot is the city itself. So why not capture the resources of the developer community?” asked Deegan. 


The survey began in late 2011 after a particularly contentious variance case at Third and Bowie Streets downtown following the adoption of the Heritage Tree Ordinance in 2010.


At the time, the board recognized that more data on the quality and quantity of downtown trees could be useful in evaluating similar variances – both in terms of whether they should be granted and in determining appropriate mitigation for their removal.


The Heritage Tree Ordinance protects 15 different species, including live oak and pecan, whose trunks are 24 inches in diameter or wider.


The Heritage Tree Ordinance is an offshoot of the 1983 Tree Preservation Ordinance, which requires a permit for the removal of protected trees. Part of the ordinance requires those seeking to remove heritage trees to obtain a variance from the Environmental Board and Planning Commission, which Embesi said “exposed a new element to those boards and commissions.”


“There were multiple issues and concerns, and a comfort level that needed to be addressed,” said Embesi, who said that he believed the survey could help address questions from commissioners as they evaluate variances in the future.


The Environmental Board praised Embesi’s efforts and voted unanimously to formally commend him for his work on the survey.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

City of Austin Heritage Tree Ordinance: The city ordinance that prohibits the unlicensed destruction of trees greater than 19 inches in diameter.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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