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Board may amend applications to protect city trees

Friday, February 20, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

On paper, Austin protects its trees. City code requires people to get approval from the city arborist before damaging or removing a tree. But representatives from the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation told the Environmental Board on Wednesday that these ordinances are often overlooked, and they urged board members to recommend a process requiring departments that regularly issue event permits to view city tree codes as fundamental commitments.

“Basically what we want to do is add a check box to their process,” said Michael Fossum, executive director of the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation. He said that when event organizers submit an application, they have to tick off specific items, such as whether they will be selling alcohol. The question of potential tree damage, said Fossum, should be a required ask.

“It can be checked off, just like anything else,” he said.

Fossum’s recommendations come after a monthlong review of the environmental fallout from the 2015 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships that were held in Zilker Park in early January.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department postponed the final day of the event to assess the effects of recent rain and championship cycling on the tree roots along the event course. The department said in a statement that staff spent the day walking event organizers from USA Cycling around the park, modifying the course to protect park grounds and heritage trees.

Parks Department staff presented to the board in late January a one-year plan to restore 57 trees damaged during the cyclocross race. Zoila Vega-Marchena, also with the Heritage Tree Foundation, told the Environmental Board that repairing the damage would actually take two to five years. She said a lack of communication between the Parks Department, the Urban Forestry Program and USA Cycling led to the tree damage.

Board member Mary Ann Neely said the city should consider asking event organizers to put down substantial deposits or agree to face financial penalties if trees end up being damaged during an event. According to a receipt, USA Cycling paid a deposit of $2,500 for the race. It is unclear if the city returned this deposit.

Fossum told the board that the Parks Department has been reluctant to make tree permits a requirement on special events applications. He said codifying the process would lessen the chance of public tree damage in the future and combat a general lack of understanding about tree care.

“(These) trees can’t be pruned,” Fossum said, providing an example of an item overlooked during the cyclocross event. “One of the things we saw out on the course was that (staff) went out there with loppers and just lopped off the limbs that were in the way.”

Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell concluded that the board would meet again, this time with a representative from the Parks Department. She said those departments and organizations with a stake in the damages caused by the cyclocross event need to pin down how the damage occurred.

Maxwell added that at this next meeting, the board will discuss how the city’s event application process can change to ensure the protection of city trees.


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