Wednesday, November 20, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

How heritage tree regulations change under new draft code

Transition zones have proved to be a divisive topic at City Hall during the ongoing discussions about the Land Development Code draft.

These zones, which are meant to promote “missing middle” housing options and increase density, are raising eyebrows due to changes in long-standing provisions that are proposed to achieve the desired density levels. One of those provisions is the Heritage Tree Ordinance.

“We offered up to Council an administrative review process for heritage trees that are in that (transition) area,” Keith Mars, manager of the Community Tree Preservation Division, told the Austin Monitor. That administrative process allows for the removal of trees that are 30 inches or greater in diameter.

Granting administrative approval, however, requires an applicant to show that transplanting a tree is not feasible due to the condition of the tree, and that removing the tree is not a design choice.

Mars told the Monitor he was confident this administrative avenue for heritage tree removal will not result in the felling of large numbers of trees. “I’m confident that there are adequate safeguards in code,” he said.

These adjustments were made in response to Council’s May memo specifying that non-zoning regulations provide flexibility to allow for increased density of units on individual parcels of land within transition zones.

Administrative approval to remove heritage trees exists today in the code. In order for the city arborist to grant a permit for the removal of a protected tree, the tree must be diseased or dead or present an “imminent hazard to life or property.” In the proposed updates to the code, the three requirements are adjusted to say the tree is either dead, “poses an extreme risk to life or property” or “is affected by an irreversible condition.”

These updates to the language are an effort to provide clearer parameters, explained Mars. It is also a method for the city’s Community Tree Preservation Division to be more proactive in removing trees that are a potential threat to human health and safety. The new definitions, Mars said, will allow for city staff to grant an administrative removal variance if a tree is in terminal decline and leaning over a roadway. “Currently, for it to become an imminent hazard, we have to wait until that branch is falling,” he explained.

Another change in the code draft defines how the city can enforce penalties for those who remove a protected tree without permitting.

“One of the big additions in code is the section on violations and offenses. We spell out if you remove a tree illegally what are some of the requirements that would be in place,” explained Mars. In the code, the consequence of removing a tree illegally includes the suspension of a site plan or building permit until the city arborist determines that sufficient mitigation measures have been taken. According to the violations section, the city arborist can also require enhanced mitigation requirements commensurate with the loss of critical root zone area.

The addition of this violations enforcement section gives the city administration teeth it does not currently have. “Currently, we don’t have adequate measures in code for how to address these situations,” said Mars.

The list of heritage tree species is also expanded in the draft code to include the anacua, or sandpaper tree. This species, said Mars, is a native of South Texas, but is making a more prominent appearance in Central Texas.

Photo of blooming anacua tree by PINKE made available through a Creative Commons license.

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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 Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.

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