Tuesday, September 28, 2010

That F@##%@# Tree Ordinance!

Developers hate being hindered by rules that limit the amount of property they can use for construction, it's easier to make a building plan for a blank sheet of paper, than for one with barriers, such as trees.
Most people would say, what's the big deal, whenever I fly into San Antonio it's a sea of trees. But the Urban Ecosystem Analysis of Greater San Antonio done by American Forests found that

  • In 1985, areas with heavy tree canopy (50% or greater treecover) covered 26% of the area (201,000 acres). By 2001, that number had fallen to 20% (156,000 acres)—a loss of over 22% of the densely forested areas. 
  • Areas with light tree canopy (less than 20% tree cover) expanded from 69% in 1985 (540,000 acres) to 77% in 2001 (605,000 acres). Though agricultural areas as well as urban areas fall under this category, the sharp increase in San Antonio’s population over the last decade (22.3% - Census Bureau) suggests that this increase in areas with little tree cover is largely the result of urban expansion.
  • While areas of medium density canopy (20-49%) had the most significant percentage change, the total number of acres affected were small in comparison to the heavy and light canopied areas. In 1985, 6% of the Greater San Antonio Area (47,000 acres) was covered by medium density canopy. Thisnumber fell to just 3% by 2001 (27,000 acres) a loss of approximately 43%. This trend suggests that as new development occurs, tree canopy is not being conserved.
In San Antonio trees are a special commodity.  It takes a long time for a tree to grow naturally in San Antonio.  Dr. Jerry Parsons at PlantAnswers.com says that
In our alkaline, rocky, and caliche soils, several tree species that do excellent in other areas of Texas, do very poorly here. Our sudden temperature fluctuations in the spring and fall kill many non-adapted trees each year.
High temperatures, low rainfall and alkaline soils may deter other trees but the hardy Live Oak finds a way.
Live oak is fast-growing under optimal conditions. Seedlings may reach 1.2 m (4 feet) in height within the first year, but growth rates taper off as age of the tree increases (Harlow et al 1979; Haller 1992). 70 year old trees may have trunks that measure as much as 54 inches in diameter (Van Dersal 1938).
Around here under natural conditions, it takes a Live Oak or a Texas Red Oak, 10 years to grow into a nice shady tree.

 The city tree ordinance used to only protect 10" diameter(and larger) trees which didn't take into account smaller native trees.  But in 2006, the ordinance was strengthened to include other native trees besides heritage live oaks and fees were raised so the builders and developers wouldn't be as tempted to build the fines for cutting down trees into the cost of development.  However, developers have discovered other ways to get around the ordinance by using vested rights, and claiming other uses besides development (such as claims that the land will be used for ranching) to clear cut property.
``People get frustrated in the process,'' engineer Gene Dawson Jr. said. ``They get held up by the city arborist on a tree issue, so they just say, `Well heck, I'm going to get my property grandfathered and I'm going to go clear the whole (property).'
In one of the most egregious cases of clear cutting
The trees were bulldozed to make room for Encino Ridge, a dense neighborhood by national chain Pulte Homes, one of San Antonio's largest builders. The Michigan-based company took in a record $11.7 billion in gross revenue last year.
``They worked day and night out here,'' nearby resident Donna Biggs said. She stretched her arms to form a wide circle. ``There were oaks this big cut down.''
Encino Ridge from Citizens Tree Coalition
Pulte's local president, Bart Swider, said the company wanted to grade the hill to cut down on the cost of each home. But he admits the clearing was an environmental blunder -- one that city tree preservation ordinances might have prevented.
In San Antonio, the law encourages the development industry to blur the line between legitimate projects and outright land speculation, records show.
The Express-News review found that:
-- In a pattern repeated on at least three occasions since 1994, developers flooded City Hall with plat filings hours before council members approved new development rules, exempting thousands of acres from more stringent city codes.
-- Developers and lobbyists helped write rules such as the water quality ordinance. Those same insiders then shepherded scores of clients through the exemption process to avoid those rules.
-- The oldest permit ever used to trigger vested rights in San Antonio dates to the horse and buggy.
In May 2010 the City Council underlined its commitment to increase the tree canopy in San Antonio by doubling the cost of cutting down trees.
 The new ordinance doubles the mitigation costs — from $100 to $200 per inch in tree diameter for significant trees and from $300 to $600 per inch for heritage trees. That means cutting down an oak with a 24-inch diameter would cost $14,400, and a 30-inch-diameter tree would cost $18,000 to remove.
The council also voted to implement a citywide program to help meet the goal of a 40 percent tree canopy, using developers' mitigation fees to plant new trees.
The ordinance, which is supposed to close two loopholes that allowed for the clear-cutting of trees, doesn't apply to property that's already been developed.

So what does beefing up the Tree Ordinance mean for the ordinary property owner?  You are exempt from the Tree ordinance if your tree meets any of the following conditions:

A. Any tree(s), significant, or heritage or tree canopy determined to be diseased, dying or dead, by the city arborist.
B. Any tree(s), significant, or heritage or tree canopy determined to be causing a danger or be in hazardous condition as a result of a natural event such as tornado, storm, flood or other act of God that endangers the public health, welfare or safety and requires immediate removal.
C. Tree(s) or tree canopy located on property 0.5 acres or less on which construction of single-family, two-family or three-family residential dwelling units has been completed.
D. Tree(s) or tree canopy located in the clear vision area, as defined in the street improvement standards.
E. Tree(s) or tree canopy preventing the opening of reasonable and necessary vehicular traffic lanes in a street or alley.
Needless to say, residential developers are unhappy about this augmentation of the law and claim that it will cause them to pass the cost on to the consumer and may price some prospective buyers out of the market.  But most new housing being built today is outside of Loop 1604, there is still plenty of good pre-owned housing stock within 1604 with developed trees and yards that are affordable.  Personally,  I want trees in my yard, how about you?

1 comment:

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