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An attack on Charlotte’s trees

Cities across North Carolina navigate a delicate balance of encouraging development while protecting the aesthetics that make communities more liveable and welcoming. A big part of that is trees – every neighborhood or commercial project you add threatens to steal from the beauty and other benefits that a healthy tree canopy provides.

That’s why many cities have rules that accommodate both growth and green, and Charlotte in particular has struck a better balance recently. It’s a struggle sometimes, given the influence of developers, but in the past four years alone, Charlotte toughened its 1978 tree ordinance, resisted a temptation to loosen tree requirements in some subdivisions, and adopted a goal of increasing the tree canopy from its current 46 percent to 50 percent by 2050.

Now, the state is threatening to reverse that progress. A bill introduced last week in the General Assembly would steal from cities and counties the power to protect their trees. House Bill 1191 would forbid municipalities from enforcing ordinances that regulate “the removal, replacement, and preservation of trees on private property.”

That would mean that Charlotte no longer could require a 10 percent tree canopy in most new single family developments, or a 15 percent saved canopy in commercial developments. So if a home builder wants to chainsaw that 10 percent rule in half, or if a business wants to rip up trees so that it can pave for more parking spaces, the city would be powerless to say no.

“It would completely gut the private property part of the tree ordinance,” City Arborist Don McSween told the Observer’s editorial board Tuesday.

Doing so would make for an uglier Charlotte, but it also would have other consequences. Trees provide buffering for stormwater runoff, and they remove carbon dioxide and reduce ozone levels. All of which was why Charlotte adopted the 50 percent by 2050 goal. That’ll be a lot harder to reach if HB1191 becomes law.

But there’s something larger that would be taken away, too. “It’s important in a community for everyone to have a say in the appearance of a community and the lifeblood of a community,” McSween says. That’s what representative local government offers. If Charlotteans want to bulldoze their tree ordinance in the name of growth and development, they can elect council members who will do so.

Instead, state lawmakers seem inclined to decide that for us by again meddling in local regulations. If the legislature passes HB1191, Gov. Pat McCrory should remember his days as Charlotte’s mayor, when he resisted Raleigh telling our city how to run itself. Charlotte and other cities should get to determine if one kind of green – the development dollar – is more important than another.

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