A city study on trees released Monday provided a glimpse of what can happen to Charlotte’s beauty and health when city officials wilt at the will of developers.
The report was done at the request of the Charlotte City Council, which last year adopted a goal to have a 50 percent tree canopy in the city by 2050. Right now, we’re at about 46 percent, but we’re continuing to lose trees to age, weather and, of course, development.
The latter isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when Charlotte grows without thought to its environment, the city suffers in several ways. One is the loss of trees, which provide buffering and filtering for storm waters. They also offer shade while removing carbon dioxide and reducing ozone levels. Plus, they make our city a prettier place.
So here’s the bad news: About 10,000 new trees are planted each year in Charlotte, which is 15,000 short of the annual pace needed to reach the 50 percent tree canopy goal. Monday’s report showed a big reason we’re behind in the first place – a developer-friendly tree ordinance that allowed builders to essentially clear-cut healthy trees instead of smartly letting them coexist with single-family homes. The city’s report included a dozen non-uptown neighborhoods larger than 25 acres that had a tree canopy of less than 10 percent. If that doesn’t seem like many, keep in mind that city staff recommends neighborhoods having a canopy of 55 to 60 percent. The neighborhoods in the report were merely the worst of the worst.
The council has taken baby steps toward improving our collective shade; in September 2010, the city toughened its 1978 tree ordinance, which now requires a 10 percent tree canopy in new single-family housing developments, and 15 percent saved canopy in commercial development. That’s still far from recommended levels, and the council has been weak-kneed about enforcing even that, sometimes allowing developers to buy their way out of saving trees. And last October, Mayor Anthony Foxx had to wave a veto in front of the council to get it to reconsider loosening tree rules for developers in some subdivisions.
Monday’s report, however, also showed how Charlotte might be turning a corner toward leafiness. The city is working out details on a matching grant program that would help neighborhoods pay for the cost of planting trees, and a public-private collaboration is making serious fundraising and strategic inroads to address the tree canopy issue.
That effort, TreesCharlotte, is led in part by a Who’s Who of city leaders, including chair Marcia Simon, Dave Cable, Betty Chafin Rash and former Observer publisher Rolfe Neill. TreesCharlotte has partnered with the city and Foundation for the Carolinas, and it has begun reaching out to businesses that want to donate money and get employees involved in planting trees. The goal: support the planting of the extra 15,000 trees needed annually to help reach the 50 percent canopy goal.
Charlotteans should embrace this worthy effort, and council members can do their part, too – not only by crafting a smart, efficient matching grant program, but by remaining committed to our canopy the next time a developer wants to take a bulldozer to the rules.