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Developer, city arborist agree on heritage tree removal

Thursday, January 19, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

In a rare exception to the city’s 95 percent preservation rate for heritage trees, the Planning Commission approved staff’s recommendation of a variance during its Jan. 10 meeting that would permit applicant Stantec Inc. to remove two heritage trees in order to construct a new hotel at 400 Josephine St.

In fact, the applicant plans to remove a total of five heritage trees, but the other three do not have any stems greater than 30 inches in diameter, so their removal can be approved administratively by the city. The other two heritage trees, pecan trees #908 and #919, are large enough that a variance was required.

Zach Hunter, the landscape architect on the project, said that multiple building layouts were drafted to determine which design would have the least harmful effect. “The layout that we have affects the two trees that we found to be in the least healthy condition,” he said at the meeting.

Jeff Jack, president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, spoke in opposition to the variance and questioned the definition of “reasonable use of the property” that was used to justify the removal of tree #908, which stands in the way of the main hotel structure, in the city arborist’s recommendation.

“I think we’ve seen several heritage tree cases where ‘reasonable use’ is not the use the developer wants, but reasonable use for the site,” he said. “I think you need to consider that they could probably redesign their hotel to accommodate that tree as a reasonable use.”

Jack also complained about how a consultant hired by the developer, Bartlett Tree Experts, had characterized the decay of tree #919 as “negligible” and the risk it posed as “moderate,” whereas the city arborist deemed it a hazard. “You would think that a consultant hired by the developer would be more aggressive in trying to remove trees than the city arborist,” he said.

City arborist Keith Mars took to the podium to respond to Jack’s allegations. “I just wanted to remind the commission that you see a fraction of the (heritage tree preservation) cases,” he said. “You heard two cases this past year, and my staff reviewed about 600 cases.

“My rationale for why (tree #919) would be removed in the development context,” Mars continued, “is that given these defects in the tree that are not correctable, it is not reasonable to incorporate this tree because of the condition.”

Commissioner Patricia Seeger inquired as to whether the applicant would be interested in giving tree #919 a “trial period” to see if it could be nursed back to health. Hunter responded that Bartlett had recommended that they concentrate their mitigation on the healthy trees on-site.

Commissioner Fayez Kazi made a motion to approve staff recommendation. “I understand (#919) might have a chance to be saved, but there’s just so many layers of reasons to approve this, the highest one being the testimony from the city arborist,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Wilson seconded, and the motion passed 9-3, with commissioners Tom Nuckols, Nuria Zaragoza and Seeger dissenting. Commissioner Chito Vela was absent.

Photo by Larry D. Moore made available through a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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