Friday, July 01, 2005

It's Time To Really Do Something To Protect Trees

The familiar journalism aphorism is that a dog biting a man is not news, but a man biting a dog is. With that in mind, you could almost argue that Rusty Hyneman mowing down a forest in Cordova isn’t really news at all. It’s really a dog bites man story; there’s nothing unexpected about it.

It’s actually more akin to the old parable about the man who picks up the snake and protects it in his coat after the viper promises not to bite him. The punch line, as you know, was that the snake bites the man any way, and the man complains and asks why. The response: what did you expect; you knew I’m a snake.

What did we expect? We knew Rusty Hyneman is one of those developers given free rein to do anything he wants in Shelby County. His name has become synonymous with the callous disregard that we’ve come to expect in the land of disposable neighborhoods, where forests are leveled so the builder can plant one lone tree in the front yards of row after row of houses that look like a strong wind might blow them away.

The repeated leveling of forests over the years has shown the value (or lack thereof) that these kinds of developers place on the quality of the environment, quality of life and quality of community that we want in this county. There is rarely concern about the kind of county we are creating, the overriding concern is for the most money that can be rung out of every development, public be damned.

This is the attitude that has brought us Germantown Road, the squandered opportunity for Cordova to be a special section of Memphis and the sprawl that pushes the county budget toward bankruptcy. How many times do the news media have to report on the cavalier clearing of trees before elected officials reflect the fury felt by the public?

For years, former Shelby County Board of Commissioner Buck Wellford fought valiantly for a strong, effective tree ordinance to bring an end to this "anything goes" kind of development mentality, but every time, his proposed resolutions were watered down or simply allowed to languish. He met with the mayor at that time, who promised to help, but as soon Commissioner Wellford left his office, he made sure the developers’ interests were not undercut. In fact, in the end, the developers and their lawyers actually ended up writing the final one themselves. Mr. Wellford came into office advocating a tree ordinance, and unfortunately, years later, he left, still pleading for one that actually saved trees. He knew that tree preservation is more than smart growth. It's just plain smart, period.

A key part of the problem is that Shelby County has treated the tree ordinance as the end-all, be-all, when it must be an interlocking part of a unified development code. (More on that in a blog next week.) Something needs to be done in a meaningful way to protect trees.

It’s time. It’s time for someone in the Wharton Administration to pick up the phone and call Mr. Wellford and ask for his file on tree ordinances. It's also time to ask what lessons he learned, so this time, developers can't be given a veto over legislation that the public wants. It’s time for the public sector to be as outraged as the public it represents. It’s time for a victory that is actual and symbolic – in passing a resolution to save trees and in sending the message that the days when developers could do anything they wanted are finally over.

Now that’s a man bites dog story worth printing.

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