In the City of Oaks, conserving trees is--what else--'up in the air' | Citizen | Indy Week
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In the City of Oaks, conserving trees is--what else--'up in the air' 

Ted Shear is not a member of the Raleigh Planning Commission, though he's tried. He's been nominated twice, and his nominators included the City Council's most pro-neighborhoods member, Thomas Crowder; developer Neal Hunt, the council's senior Republican; and the man in the middle, by seat location and otherwise, Mayor Charles Meeker. Alas, Shear's anathema to most in the development biz because he's a known (gulp) activist. So even with his glittering trio of backers, he's never made it to the needed five council votes for appointment. (Yes, for a brief moment Shear did have five, until the homebuilders' lobbyists whispered in rookie Mike Regan's ear that, in this case, Mike, you're not supposed to follow Hunt's lead, and Meeker graciously allowed Regan to change his vote.)

But Shear is a full professor of forestry at N.C. State--director of the graduate program in restoration ecology, even--and as an activist, he knows his way around Raleigh planning issues. So what better member of the city's Tree Conservation Task Force to consult on the subject of Raleigh's proposed, and apparently controversial, tree ordinance?

Is the ordinance "complicated," as the development industry contends? Actually, Shear says, it's pretty simple. It's designed to save trees. Big trees especially, and trees on the perimeter of developments. That's a very traditional approach to tree protection. If they're growing on the edge of your property, you don't cut them down unless they're unhealthy and a threat to the neighbors.

Any complication in the ordinance, Shear says, arises from the decision by the task force to give developers some alternatives, just in case they'd rather save trees elsewhere on the property instead of just the perimeter.

Here's the basic proposal: If you're developing houses on big lots, you're supposed to keep 15 percent of the land in trees--if it's already in trees. For all other developments, whether residential or otherwise, the requirement is 10 percent. But again, only if the trees are already there. If they're not, you're not required to grow them. You're just not supposed to cut them down if they're above a certain size.

OK, that's simple enough. So why--three years after Meeker was elected mayor promising, as his top priority, to save trees--do we not yet have a tree-saving ordinance?

The short answer, Shear says, is that developers don't like to be required to do anything if it might cost them money. "But," he adds, "you can't preserve trees at zero cost. We did the best job we could do to save as many trees as possible while minimizing the cost--to first capture as much tree protection as possible in areas where it's the least onerous to do so, and to allow maximum flexibility. But there's no free lunch when it comes to trees."

There's no free lunch, and beyond that d'Artagnion's credo in The Three Musketeers applies: "One for all, and all for one." It's cheaper for any single developer to clear-cut the tract, build and then plant back. But if everyone clear-cuts, you have a city with no trees and less value for all. The task force reports that, in general, land with trees is worth 15 percent more than land with no trees. How much more is a city worth--and every tract in it?

Moreover, the task force--whose 15 members included activists like Shear and developers and builders as well--determined that, on large tracts in particular, it's often better to save interior trees than just a ring around the boundary. But when they sought enabling legislation to achieve that goal, the General Assembly turned them down.

That's right: Before a city or town can require anybody to save a tree in North Carolina, it has to get special permission from the General Assembly. That's what reporters mean when they talk about the "powerful development interests" who control state politics.

What the development interests gave Raleigh--almost two years later--was the limited power to save perimeter trees, not interior trees. That's why the proposed ordinance requires only the former, but allows developers to choose the latter as an alternative, Shear tells us.

You may also have read that the proposed ordinance could result in Joe Homeowner paying a big fine for cutting down the wrong tree. Maybe, but it's not likely. Joe'd have to cut down a very big tree at the edge of his property for no justifiable purpose other than sheer anti-treeness. And even then, look for the City Council, if it adopts this ordinance at all, to set a low, low fine for Joe.

Actually, Shears says, the reason lot owners are included in the ordinance is that it would make little sense to bar developers from clear-cutting trees while allowing the folks they buy land from to cut them down beforehand.

The task force wanted lots of one acre or larger included in the ordinance. The planning commission boosted that number to two acres or more. The effect was to reduce the number of lots covered from about 3,600 to just 1,300--out of 117,871 residential lots in Raleigh.

This was the main change the planning commission made to the ordinance in four months of pawing over it--a pace so studied that Shear became convinced their purpose was to run out the clock on the thing and kill it. Finally, however, the commission has let go of it, albeit with the recommendation that it be defeated ("too complicated," it said), and there may still be time for the council to adopt something--but time is of the essence. "I think it's up in the air," Shear jokes. "I haven't started an office pool on it, but I'm thinking about it."

***

What's the rush? It's pure politics, actually. Two members of the council, Janet Cowell and the aforementioned Neal Hunt, are leaving in January to take their seats in the state Senate. Cowell's a pro-trees vote. Hunt is too, sort of. He's made a living politically as a tree-hugging conservative. But he's also under pressure from the developers not to hug them too tightly.

Once those two leave Council, however, their replacements aren't likely to be as pro-tree--especially Hunt's. If form holds, the neighborhood side in Raleigh will get to choose Cowell's replacement, but the Republicans will choose Hunt's--and no tree-lovers wanted. Hunt could be replaced, for example, by planning commission member Scott Cutler, who led the opposition to the ordinance.

With Cowell and Hunt, the needed five votes are possible (gotta have James West, too--no sure thing--along with Meeker and Crowder). Without them, four looks like the limit unless pro-development Democrat Jessie Taliaferro can be talked into it. Which usually means talking the homebuilders into it.

Next stop for the ordinance: A meeting of the council's "committee of the whole" just before the holidays. What fun, watching the homebuilders hang their special balls and chains on Raleigh's trees--or try, anyway!

And will New Year's bring a resolution before Neal Hunt's resignation? Let heaven and nature sing, Neal.

Write to rjgeary@mac.com with your tree-trimming tips.

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