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Environmental Commission pushes for additional tree protections on Apple campus

Monday, December 16, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Apple Inc. is well on its way to bringing a billion-dollar campus to Austin on a 133-acre parcel of land at 6900 Parmer Lane called Robinson Ranch.

In an effort to offer increased protections for the trees on the property, the Environmental Commission unanimously passed a recommendation at its Dec. 4 meeting to encourage Apple to “save as many trees as possible,” establish open space for habitat and wildlife conservation with public access and consider contributing to Austin Wildlife Rescue.

In 2004, the ranch was rezoned for a high urban density planned unit development that will include mixed-use and transit-oriented development. Although a laudable goal to encourage density and urbanism in far North Austin, the regulations that govern this development are now 15 years out of date – including the tree protections.

Site plans filed last December indicate the removal of about 1,500 trees, 187 of which are considered to have protected or heritage status under the city’s Heritage Tree Ordinance.

“This commission does not have the ability to force Apple to be a better environmental steward, but we can implore them to do more,” said Commissioner Curtis Smith, co-sponsor of the resolution.

Smith told the Austin Monitor that the suggestions laid out in the commission’s recommendation came straight from the city arborist and that they were made with the consideration that Apple is one of the largest and wealthiest companies in the world.

These non-binding suggestions are in addition to the 1,170 trees that Apple will plant as on-site mitigation, which is noted in the filed site plans.

A spokesperson for the Development Services Department told the Monitor that 30 on-site trees will also be replanted. However, since the project does not need to abide by the Heritage Tree Ordinance, the city does not have data on how many transplanted trees qualify for heritage status. Apple has already transplanted five trees, but the city spokesperson was unable to say whether they qualified for heritage status.

Apple pointed the Monitor to a press release that said, “Apple is partnering with Austin-based Bartlett Tree Experts to preserve and increase the diversity of native trees on the 133-acre property. Thousands of trees spanning over 20 varieties native to Texas are planned for the campus — significantly more than were on the site before construction started.” Sixty percent of the campus will be dedicated to green space, including a 50-acre nature preserve.

Smith clarified that the wildlife preserve recommended by the Environmental Commission is a conservation easement “which is a voluntary, legal agreement that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation. (Apple is) setting aside land per their press release but with no official legal agreement for its long-term protection.”

Commissioners agreed that increasing protections for trees was an important step in creating a campus that is in line with the city’s environmental mindset. By choosing to locate its campus on undeveloped land, Apple should be held to a higher standard than other companies that elect to locate their headquarters in developed areas, said Smith.

As the new Apple campus already has Council’s approval, the commission’s resolution is intended simply to bring the company’s attention to ways it can more conscientiously develop its campus. Smith told the Monitor that the suggestions outlined by the commission were not the ultimate solution, nor was a recommendation going to be the catalyst to change. He and the commissioners encouraged an ongoing conversation between the city and the California tech giant.

“I don’t think there’s a set way to go about it,” he told the Monitor. “First step is for Apple to step up.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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