The 21-page tree ordinance and its corresponding 37-page handbook are as dense as the Amazon jungle, but one aspect of it is clear-cut: Few people are pleased with the final product, which took a task force appointed by Mayor Charles Meeker three years to complete.
At a Jan. 9 public hearing before Raleigh City Council, several developers and property owners lamented that the ordinance, which went into effect in May 2005, is cumbersome and unfair; meanwhile, environmental groups and other concerned citizens complained the law is toothless in protecting the city's disappearing urban treescape. By the end of the two-hour meeting, nothing had been resolved, but Meeker said afterward that he will seek council approval to reconvene core task force members and add several concerned citizens to look at the ordinance.
There is little argument that trees are beneficial: They prevent stormwater runoff and soil erosion, decrease air pollution, reduce urban heat, provide essential wildlife habitats and increase property values. But the sticking points—for those on both sides of the issue—center on the amount, size, type and placement of trees and their conservation areas.
The ordinance applies to land within the city and its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), an area up to three miles extending from Raleigh's boundaries that falls within its planning and zoning laws. The ordinance contains additional provisions to protect root zones, create buffers on property boundaries and thoroughfares, and allows for replanting as a last resort. Violators can be fined a minimum of $1,000.
"What is being preserved is far from the intent of the ordinance," said Paul Brant, who owns three acres on Shallowbook Trail. He showed the council slides of areas in Raleigh where scrub had been preserved, poor grading caused trees to stand in water and construction debris was piled on top of root zones. "It's not fair. I paid $1,000 for a tree survey. I am a single property owner and I want to build one house."
Brenda Eaton, who lives on Lake Wheeler Road, recounted her seven-month bureaucratic nightmare in acquiring a tree conservation permit for her three-acre lot on which she's building a new home. Her current house and a rental also sit on the property. The tree survey, she said, required measuring the diameter of thousands of spindly saplings. The red tape, she added, delayed the project by at least four months. "I tried to get a tree conservation permit and the inspection department wouldn't let us get one without an address. Then I went to planning and they wouldn't let us get an address without a tree conservation permit," said Eaton. "I love trees. I'm a biology teacher. But our lot is being treated as a commercial area."
Lots greater than two acres are regulated under the ordinance, a bone the task force reluctantly threw to developers, as it exempts most infill projects in the city's core.
Bill Padgett, of the Coalition for Responsible Development in Raleigh, advocates strengthening the ordinance. He told council members only 11 properties within the city limits are affected. Of those 34 acres, only three and a half would be preserved under the ordinance. However, he did advocate for simplifying the ordinance and possibly rewarding those who comply with or exceed the law through reductions in impact fees.
"There are still a lot of people upset the ordinance doesn't address infill," said task force member Dean Naujoks, also the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. "People are taking small, older homes, tearing down trees and putting up McMansions in the middle of Raleigh."
This type of redevelopment is occurring inside the Beltline on Transylvania Avenue where Jennifer Maher lives. Seven houses have been torn down in the past decade, she said, replaced by 11 homes. "Almost every tree was knocked down and not a canopy tree was planted. There is increased noise, heat and light at night."
"Some of the criticisms were legitimate," said Naujoks after the hearing. "But the reason the ordinance is complex is we did it at the request of the development industry."
Naujoks explained that the task force tried to encourage preserving rows of trees and added flexibility to the ordinance so "developers won't lose entire homes for a single tree."
Still, some of Raleigh's most majestic trees could fall to the chainsaw. "Champion trees," those recognized by Raleigh's Capital Trees Program or the American Forestry Association, are protected under the ordinance, but heritage trees are not.
Heritage trees are usually defined as large, native trees with special characteristics such as historical significance or community benefit.
"Sometimes those are the first to be cut," said Raleigh Urban Forester Andy Gilliam, who, in December, sent city officials a list of 23 recommended changes to the ordinance. Among the amendments are strengthening the ordinance to address trees that are being cut down on land that isn't being developed. "The majority of violations are by tree services that remove trees when no land is being cleared," Gilliam wrote. In addition, Gilliam suggested modifying the ordinance to prevent developers from trying to count treeless, commercial-zoned areas as tree conservation land.
One property owner, who owns 14 acres in the ETJ, told the council that the area should be excluded from the ordinance. However, the ETJ is the fastest-growing area in Raleigh and most vulnerable to clear-cutting. More than 500,000 people are projected to move to Wake County in the next 20 years, according to the State Data Center, and many of them will reside in the ETJ.
"There would be much land left to conserve trees if the ETJ wasn't included," said Gilliam in an interview after the hearing. "We made substantial concessions to the development community."
However, those concessions were apparently insufficient for one property owner.
"I'm tired of providing quality of life for everyone else," said Bob Matula, who lives on Cowper Road. "Why don't people pay me $1,000 for every tree I don't cut down?"