Saving trees or endangering neighborhoods? City considers overhauling ordinance

Is a rule meant to save trees putting neighborhoods in jeopardy?

That was the question Monday night, as Charlotte City Council considered modifying a regulation intended to preserve trees that some neighbors say developers are using as a loophole to subdivide and over-build on single-family residential lots.

Known as the tree-save ordinance, the regulation requiring developers to preserve a certain percentage of trees on new building sites was first adopted in 1978. In 2002, City Council revised the ordinance, allowing developers to build more houses on smaller lots in single-family areas – if they agreed to save more trees.

The idea is simple: Let developers build on smaller lots so that a larger percentage of the site – more than the minimum 10 percent requirement – can be put aside as a tree-save area. The incentive was intended to preserve open spaces in large, new subdivisions.

But the revised ordinance doesn’t distinguish between new subdivisions and existing lots in established neighborhoods. That means that builders can also reduce their minimum lot sizes by preserving more than 10 percent of the area as tree-save space when they build on existing lots in established neighborhood.

At Monday’s meeting, Council member Kenny Smith, a Republican, said neighbors feel developers are using the ordinance to increase density in areas without going through a public hearing, as would be required in a rezoning.

“You’re using this incentive we intended for one aspect for another aspect,” Smith said of how neighbors view the “loophole.”

He said the disagreement comes down to arguments over how dense neighborhoods should become as parts of Charlotte urbanize.

“This is as much a density argument as anything,” said Smith.

Between Sept. 2014 and May 30, builders have used the tree ordinance to subdivide 19 single-family residential properties into smaller lots. Seven are under consideration, city staff said. The change wouldn’t apply to properties already in the process of subdivision.

“We’re getting skinny little lots...within five feet of the property line,” said Eleanor Barnhardt of the Freedom Park Neighborhood Association. “We’ve been blindsided...with no opportunity to be heard.”

Supporters of keeping the tree-save ordinance as-is said it’s a valuable tool to preserve existing trees in older neighborhoods.

“Undermining this provision is not the way to go,” said Rick Roti, president of the Charlotte Public Tree Fund. “I’m hearing a lot of confusion tonight...Tree save in back yards is extremely valuable.”

Some council members said they understood neighbors’ concerns but were skeptical of how urgent the need for change is, or how widespread negative impacts have been beyond a few streets.

“I don’t know that the impact has really been that significant,” said Greg Phipps, a Democrat. “I’m trying to wrap my hands around the urgency.”

Wonderwood Drive

The main example everyone pointed to was Wonderwood Drive, a two-block strip off Randolph Road, where builders have used the ordinance to subdivide several lots. One builder combined three individual parcels and preserved more than 25 percent of the lots as tree-save area. That allowed two houses to be built on the site, on lots 58 feet wide. They’re significantly closer to each other than the adjacent houses, built on lots 110 feet and 158 feet wide.

“It looks like a bomb went off on the street,” said Mary Frances Parker, who opposes using the ordinance to subdivide small lots. “Don’t let that happen to the rest of us.”

City staff say the resulting tree save areas on existing lots are “negligible” – 0.3 acres, for example – and the trees there are often damaged during construction. Staff also said it’s difficult to enforce preservation of those trees on individual lots in perpetuity.

“Application of the tree save provision for individual lots in existing neighborhoods resulting in reduced lot sizes and increased density has negatively impacted the character and fabric of some neighborhoods,” city staff wrote in a presentation earlier this year.

Not all local residents support changing the ordinance. Joe Lesch, who lives on Wonderwood and said he supports keeping the ordinance as-is, said non-subdivided lots don’t necessarily save trees.

“Those lots were clear-cut,” Lesch said of full-sized lots on Wonderwood that have been redeveloped.

City Council is considering changing the ordinance so it applies mainly to new subdivisions. A builder using the tree save to get smaller lots would have to build a ring of trees around the perimeter of the new houses to screen neighboring houses from the smaller lots – and they wouldn’t be able to use the incentives to subdivide any lots on parcels smaller than two acres. They plan to vote on the change Aug. 22.

Some neighbors worry that the increased number of houses might bring more kids, causing a change in school boundaries.

“The infill is going to eventually cause some school rezoning to happen,” said Parker “It will eventually effect the neighborhood so we are rezoned or someone has to be rezoned out of their school.”

Kathy Spence, director of marketing at infill residential developer Bannister Homes, said that while people might be able to sell their land for more money when they subdivide to two lots, it can hurt neighboring properties.

“Although the seller of the land may benefit from the higher sale price, that benefit is sometimes taken at the expense of the neighboring owners, in my opinion,” said Spence.

Lee McLaren, who helped craft the original ordinance, said the original intent was to cover smaller lots as well as new subdivisions.

“They don’t understand...that their community will be much the poorer if this provision is taken out,” McLaren said of proposed changes.

Residents opposed to the ordinance made clear they didn’t agree.

“If it was the original intent, too bad. Too bad for you, it should never have happened,” said Parker, drawing applause from the crowd.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo