Monday, May 6, 2019 by Elizabeth Pagano

Planning commissioners strike heritage tree compromise

When it comes to preserving heritage trees, when should development take precedence? That was the question planning commissioners sought to answer at their most recent meeting, where developers of a property at 2111 Rio Grande St. were seeking variances to uproot two heritage trees in order to make way for student housing.

The Planning Commission voted 10-1 to allow removal of the 34-inch-diameter tree, to be mitigated at 150 percent of the tree’s value. They also endorsed a plan that would relocate and reorient the larger pecan, moving it about 10 feet.

City staff did not have time to evaluate whether transplanting the tree would be feasible, so commissioners added a condition that would allow the tree to be removed if staff determined that was the case, to be replaced at 300 percent mitigation.

Unlike with other variances, the Planning Commission – not City Council – is the final authority on heritage tree variances, which are required to remove or move certain trees in the city. Previously, the Environmental Commission heard the case, and recommended denial of a variance that would remove the 37-inch pecan, but agreed with staff that the 34-inch-diameter pecan could go.

Much of the discussion at the meeting focused on whether the location of the tree within the University Neighborhood Overlay – an area of the city where density is actively encouraged – should be factored into the notion of “reasonable use.”

City arborist Keith Mars explained that for the smaller pecan, reasonable use and the condition of the tree both played a role in his determination that the variance for removal should be granted.

“We try to be judicious with this type of condition,” said Mars. “We will say when a tree needs to be preserved, and this is not that case.”

The other tree, however, was in much better condition. Mars described the second tree, a 37-inch pecan, as “not the most beautiful tree, but not a structurally hazardous tree.”

Mike McHone, who was representing the applicant, Jason Rogers, disagreed with that assessment. He said the tree was a threat and argued that it interfered with plans to build on the lot. He told commissioners that the 37-inch pecan would mean a loss of 42 bedrooms (four of them affordable) for the project and would interfere with the construction of a parking garage, preventing reasonable use of a lot in a high-density area.

Due to a drawn-out city process and tight construction deadline, McHone offered an alternative that commissioners seized upon. He said the owners would try to move the tree 10 feet to the north, reorienting it out of the way of the historic building and the project, and saving the tree.

“Time is what the city of Austin has as the ultimate weapon,” said McHone. “We’re out, so we’ll do whatever it takes to get this project going,” said McHone.

As an additional enhancement, McHone made the point that they would be preserving a third, non-protected tree on the property – a red oak – and giving it the chance to become a heritage tree in the future. McHone said he had planted a red oak with his son when he bought the property in 1970, and planned to save it.

Michael Fossum, with the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation, asked that the variance for the 37-inch tree be denied and the variance for the 34-inch tree be approved with 300 percent mitigation. He argued that the Heritage Tree Ordinance should be applied equally to all areas of town, based on the viability of the tree, density goals of UNO notwithstanding.

Commissioner Karen McGraw, who cast the lone vote in opposition to the variances, agreed. Commissioner Patricia Seeger was absent.

“It seems like what we are really doing is horse-trading. If it’s an expensive project or if it has a lot of dwellings, we’re a lot more lenient. I hate to see that happen, because heritage trees can’t be replaced,” McGraw said. “I am not going to vote against a heritage tree tonight.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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.

City of Austin University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO): A set of design guidelines for a portion of the City of Austin that includes the West Campus, North University, and Hancock neighborhood areas.

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