Sunday, July 03, 2005

Preserving Trees Demands A Comprehensive Approach

Trees are the lungs of the city. That’s why the bulldozing of 150 acres of trees in Cordova by an uncaring developer is the equivalent of a pulmonary embolism for Memphis and Shelby County.

The United States Forest Service says that one tree, over its 50-year lifetime, generates $31,250 worth of oxygen; $62,000 worth of air pollution control; recycles $37,500 worth of water; and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion. If there were just 100 trees on each acre in Cordova, this slash and burn development style cost the community $469 million worth of oxygen; $930 million in air pollution control; $562.5 million worth of water recycling; and $469 million in soil erosion.

The Commercial Appeal is right that trees should be protected, but the answer to protecting the trees of Shelby County is more complex than just “fixing” the tree ordinance. In truth, the 150 acres of felled trees in Cordova are symptoms. The problem itself is the need to rewrite subdivision regulations to make developments more livable in the first place.

It’s worth remembering why then-Commissioner Buck Wellford never got his strong tree ordinance passed. Instead, he got lip service from the Rout Administration, which promised support but always placed the needs of developers ahead of the needs of the families living in their disposable developments.

When Commissioner Wellford seemed to be making some headway in getting a tough tree ordinance passed, the Rout Administration feigned support by setting up a committee to consider what to do. The harbinger of the future was that this assignment was not given to the staff of the Office of Planning and Development, which strongly favored Mr. Wellford’s efforts, but to the Division of Public Works, which has traditionally had a cozy relationship with development interests.

The Public Works director called together a committee to work on the ordinance, and in the end, the ordinance was actually written by two developers and a developer’s lawyer. As a result, while a tree ordinance was passed in 2001, it was nothing more than window dressing to calm the public outcry about clear cutting. In fact, it was intentionally written with enough loopholes that a truck could be driven through them (and a logging truck at that).

In other words, today’s tree ordinance works exactly as intended. It gives the façade of environmental sensitivity, while placing no real constraints on developers. Especially problematic is the language about “equivalent alternative.” It means that a tree cut down that has 10 inches or greater DBH (diameter at breast height) can be replaced by four 2 ½ inch trees. It doesn’t matter if the original tree was in fact 50 inches or 12 inches; all the developer has to do is plant four 2 ½ inch trees. And most of the time they are given exceptions even for this requirement because of the size of the lots. If that wasn’t enough, the exemption for tree harvesting is a tremendous loophole, because a developer can actually make money clearing the site and avoiding the preservation of trees.

The solution to clear cutting is not rewriting the tree ordinance. It is in the rewriting of the subdivision regulations, keeping in mind that street design, drainage, grading and lot size are as important in saving trees as taking the chain saws out of the hands of developers. The existing problem is not just the ineffectual tree ordinance, but an overall attitude that is seen in asinine engineering requirements that require straight roads, absurdly large turning radii, unimaginative drainage solutions, and more.

As long as the code allows 3,000 to 4,000 square foot lots in these “planned developments,” the ultimate oxymoron, there is absolutely no way to save trees. Planned development ought to be what it says, and as long as developers write ordinances, politically influence enforcement and have multiple bites of the zoning apple as part of the process, things are unlikely to improve for the area’s trees.

Fortunately, development of the Unified Development Code, set in motion by Mayor Herenton in 2001 and given momentum by Mayor Wharton once he took office, is under way. There has not been a comprehensive development code prepared for Memphis and Shelby County in 25 years, and the last one was a policy plan.

This one is being led by Duncan Association of Austin, Texas, and fortunately under the aegis of the Office of Planning and Development. Already, it appears to have the potential to be a model for the rest of the U.S. Early on, it set “environmentally responsive zoning” as a top priority. Early writings of the planning team emphasize the conservation benefits of tree preservation in stabilizing soil, controlling water pollution, conserving energy, preserving and fostering air quality, abating visual and noise pollution and providing natural habitat for wildlife. Equally important, the planners say, trees provide psychological and aesthetic benefits that are often overlooked.

A key recommendation already: protect more trees. Among the strategies:
 implement a tree replacement rate that increases with the size of the tree removed
 establish specific levels of protection for forested areas, require a tree survey and eliminate the exemption for tree harvesting
 develop a heritage tree program to protect trees of exceptional size or significance
 adopt tree maintenance standards
 implement provisions to protect saved trees during construction.

Duncan Associates and their colleagues put it directly: “Tree protection can encourage or discourage tree preservation. The current regulations encourage cookie cutter development to achieve the permitted density. Thus, any resource of tree protection can lead to loss of density. A loss of density is an economic disincentive to protect trees.”

That’s a statement that speaks to the wisdom of addressing tree protection in the context of the overall development code. It’s also a statement on which to build a code that produces the kind of green neighborhoods and quality developments that Shelby County wants and deserves.

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