Tuesday, September 9, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

South Austin development threatens Heritage Trees

Though still in the early stages, a proposed South Austin development continues to draw fire from the city’s various boards and commissions. Last week, concerned citizens asked the city to take a closer look at its compliance with the Heritage Tree Ordinance.

The PSW Real Estate development at 1805 Lightsey Road has already faced opposition at the Board of Adjustment and during an earlier trip to the Planning Commission. Last week, it was also the featured subject during the Citizens Communications portion of the most recent Environmental Board meeting, where concerned neighbors worried about plans to remove Heritage Trees on the land, even though the development was not being considered by the board.

City arborist Michael Embesi told the Austin Monitor that the project was currently looking at removing about 50 15 protected trees — which are trees 19 inches or more in diameter — and three Heritage Trees, one of which is in poor health.

That may sound bad, but Embesi put it into context.

“They are saving nearly 70 percent of the total caliper inches on the property,” said Embesi. “There’s approximately 1,200 inches of protected-size trees on the property … Of those, they are saving a little over 800 inches.”

Jim Witliff, who is a land development consultant, appeared before the board as a private citizen and neighbor.

“I’ve worked in Austin for over 30 years. I’ve personally designed thousands of residential lots on hundreds of acres over this time. I’m very familiar with the (Heritage Tree) ordinance,” said Witliff. “I’m pretty shocked that there are numerous, serious code violations and lapses for this project.”

Witliff said the process to remove a protected Heritage Tree was clear and uncomplicated. In this case, however, Witliff said “none of it has been followed.” He questioned why the city wasn’t requiring an alternative plan that would preserve the three Heritage Trees.

“(They are) three healthy, beautiful trees that just happen to be unluckily located in their (street) alignment,” said Witliff.

Witliff said he was told there was no practical alternative. However, he told the Environmental Board that in less than three hours, he was able to draft two alternative, code-compliant plans that would save the trees.

Witliff said it was “ridiculous” that developers were not required to follow the ordinance in this case.

“City staff has not followed the code. They haven’t written their recommendations out, why the variance were given. PSW asked for it, and they just gave it to them,” said Witliff. “Why call them protected trees? Call them not protected trees.”

“And heritage? Don’t even get me started,” said Witliff.

Embesi noted that the project, which is currently in the conceptual subdivision phase, has been altered numerous times to minimize the effect on the trees and save more trees than originally planned.

The city’s Heritage Tree Ordinance protects certain types of trees that have a diameter of 24 inches or more. Though developers and homeowners can remove those trees, they can do so only with permission from the city, which is acquired either administratively or through the boards and commissions process. Removal of a Heritage Tree also requires monetary mitigation or planting of new trees.

“This is the normal process,” said Embesi. “We are looking at ways of minimizing impacts to the trees, whether it’s through our variance process, or whether it’s through design of the project. We’re still in that phase of trying to minimize impacts to the trees on the property.”

Both Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and Board Member Mary Ann Neely said they would like to hear more, and the board asked for a report at its next meeting, set for Sept. 17.

“Thank you for alerting us to this,” said Neely.

“I don’t know how much good it will do, but at least it’s going to get registered,” said Maxwell.

Though the case is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission tonight, staff is planning to request a postponement. The city’s case manager, Sylvia Limon, told the Monitor that the postponement would allow city staff to clarify legal questions that arose during the Environmental Board meeting.

Though the Environmental Board is not scheduled to weigh in on the case, Planning Commissioners can request a recommendation from the board before taking action.

(This story has been corrected to reflect that the developer was planning to remove 15 protected trees. We incorrectly reported 50.)

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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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