City Council changes ‘loophole’ in tree-save ordinance that roiled some neighborhoods

Charlotte City Council voted on Monday to change an ordinance meant to save trees that some said was putting neighborhoods in jeopardy by exposing them to over-development.

The tree-save ordinance is meant to protect trees in new developments, by requiring developers to save a percentage of trees on new building sites. But some neighbors, especially off Randolph Road, raised concerns that the ordinance was being used to let developers build too many houses on lots in existing neighborhoods.

Now, the law will only apply only to larger new residential subdivisions, not existing lots. City Council voted to approve the change 7 to 1, with John Autry, a Democrat, voting against the measure. He said he had supported moving quickly, but needed more time.

“I would have liked a little more time to digest this information and chew on it,” said Autry.

In 2002, City Council revised the ordinance, which was first adopted in 1978, to add a bonus that allowed developers to build more houses on smaller lots if they agreed to save more than the minimum 10 percent of trees on the site that the law mandates. The incentive to save more trees in exchange for smaller lots was originally intended to preserve open spaces in large, new subdivisions.

But the problem arose from a disagreement about whether the law should apply only to new developments or larger lots, or should also be applied to existing single-family lots on streets such as Wonderwood Drive off Randolph Road. Under the rule, builders could reduce their minimum lot sizes and build more houses on a given site by preserving more than 10 percent of the area as tree-save space – even when building on existing lots in an established neighborhood.

For example, on Wonderwood, a builder combined three parcels and set aside more than 25 percent of the lots as tree-save area. That allowed two houses to be built on the site 58-foot-wide lots. Those houses are significantly closer to each other than the adjacent houses, which are built on lots 110 feet and 158 feet wide.

Neighbors objected to some of the subdivided lots, which they said crammed too much density into existing areas while saving a negligible amount of tree canopy. Some areas were as small as 0.3 acres, for example, and trees are often damaged during construction, as well as difficult to preserve in perpetuity on individual lots.

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

City staff and the advisory Zoning Committee recommended the ordinance be changed. Builders have used the tree-save ordinance to subdivide 19 single-family residential properties into smaller lots, between Sept. 2014 and the end of May.

Still, not everyone agreed with changing the ordinance. Supporters said preserving smaller wooded areas in existing lots is worthwhile.

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

The Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, an industry lobbying group, also opposed the changes. Executive director Joe Padilla tweeted the changes “could reduce incentive to preserve trees on infill construction.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo