Charlotte loves its trees. That might not be enough to keep the city green.

Charlotte loves its trees

Local leaders want 50-percent tree coverage by 2050
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Local leaders want 50-percent tree coverage by 2050

The green mantle that is beginning to shade city streets is spring’s reminder that Charlotte, for all its asphalt, holds one of the nation’s grandest urban forests.

But Charlotte’s vision of becoming an ever-greener City of Trees faces this reality: Trees are falling faster than young ones can replace them.

The century-old trees that line many of the city’s older streets are reaching the end of their lifespans. Neighborhoods such as Myers Park stand to lose up to 60 percent of those trees over the next three decades, according to a recent city report.

Charlotte spends less than comparable cities to maintain publicly-owned trees.

And developers continue to cut more trees than they replant.

All that works against a Charlotte City Council goal, set in 2011, that trees cover 50 percent of the city’s area by 2050. The target seemed easy enough at the time, considering that the tree canopy was at 47 percent in 2012.

Instead, the report estimates, the city’s canopy will shrink to 41 percent by the time the city’s land area is fully developed.

“Staff always knew that 50/50 goal was a bold goal,” said Erin Oliverio, the city’s tree canopy program manager. The recent report, she added, “is making everyone stop and look at what we’re doing and where we’re going.

How the city responds is likely to be determined not just by officials but the public at large.

A new direction, city staff members say, could mean not only more money from City Council and private sources but more sweat equity from the the public.

Volunteers could be recruited to maintain young street trees and community groups like the nonprofit TreesCharlotte to share planting costs. The city tree ordinance might be revised to save more trees while offering developers extra flexibility to help.

“We’re kind of looking at it as an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said city arborist Tim Porter.

The report that went before City Council’s environment committee last week was put together by city staff with help from TreesCharlotte, Davey Resource Group and 2,800 responses to an online survey of residents. A longer-term management plan, building off the report, could be ready by 2018.

The report noted that:

▪ Charlotte spends $1.85 per capita to maintain its 180,000 publicly-owned trees. That’s 79 percent below the national average and 44 percent less than cities of comparable size spend.

▪ The city’s tree staff uses most of its $1.6 million maintenance budget to respond to sagging limbs and fallen trees. Little money is left for proactive measures, such as pruning that can make young trees more structurally sound as they mature.

▪  Eighty percent of the city’s trees are privately owned. Development outside the city center is taking so many trees that losses will continue to mount even as newly-planted trees grow.

It’s unknown how many trees the city loses each year to development or from old age and disease.

But computer simulations of three Charlotte communities, included in the city report, show canopy losses of up to 55 percent over three decades, despite requirements that developers replant new trees. The estimates don’t include payments by developers into a conservation fund in lieu of saving trees at construction sites.

The nonprofit TreesCharlotte formed to help the city meet its 2050 goal by planting trees, often at barren sites such as new school campuses. Its volunteers plant 5,000 to 6,000 trees and distribute another 5,000 seedlings each year.

Meeting the city’s canopy goal will mean planting 500,000 trees over the next 20 years, the group says. That will likely require increased planting, more protection of trees from development and better stewardship of growing trees.

Homeowners in low-income neighborhoods may need help maintaining their aging trees, TreesCharlotte founding director Dave Cable said. The group is also developing a voluntary certification program to recognize developers who save more trees than required.

“We are losing a lot of trees,” Cable said. “To put ourselves on a flight path to meet that (50 percent) goal is going to require some serious capital and commitment from the community.”

‘We need more trees’

Trees add to property values and lend an irreplaceable aesthetic to lawns, streets and park. They also have practical, if hidden, value in intercepting stormwater and improving air quality.

“I don’t think there’s a single person on council that would argue the fact that we need more trees,” said Charlotte City Council member Patsy Kinsey, who chairs the environment committee. “It depends on the balancing act of, is the money there to do it? ... We have so many trees and I think we probably need more personnel.”

Council added three positions to the city’s tree staff last year. The city’s current budget allocates $1.6 million to trimming and removal of public trees and $900,000 for tree replacement. The city also contributed $250,000 to a TreesCharlotte endowment fund.

As its street trees grow old and infirm, the city has doubled the number it takes down over the past five years, to 829 last year. But new plantings to replace those trees dropped by half to 696 in 2016.

Porter, the city arborist, attributes the recent drop in plantings to staff turnover and a shortage of young trees. Tree nurseries, still recovering from the last economic downturn, could supply only about half the 1,200 planting sites the city had last year.

Gina Shell, interim director of the city’s property management unit, said staff won’t ask City Council for more money or tweaks to the city’s tree ordinance for the upcoming budget year. More likely is discussion of a five- to 10-year plan, including specific financial needs, in 2018.

“I think what we are seeing from the plan is concerning,” Shell said, particularly the impact of development. An updated survey of the city’s tree canopy, expected to be completed by next year, will yield new data.

Developers and trees

Charlotte’s tree ordinance makes commercial developers preserve at least 15 percent of the trees on a building site. Single-family home sites have to save at least 10 percent of the trees.

Developers may get bonuses, such as being allowed to build more densely, if they go beyond the minimum tree-save requirement. Commercial developers, instead of saving trees on-site, may also pay into a fund that conserves trees elsewhere in the city.

This year developers paid $1.5 million into that fund. The program has acquired 168 acres and expects to buy another 71 acres – three times the forested acreage that developers would have been required to save at construction sites.

Developers’ and homebuyers’ growing zest for compact, walkable communities could help preserve more trees, says the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, known as REBIC.

“We would really love to see the city promote higher-density, small-lot development in exchange for tree canopy preservation,” said executive director Joe Padilla. “But that’s going to take (existing) neighborhoods accepting duplexes and townhouses instead of quarter-acre lots.”

With most large, undeveloped tracts already taken, he said, new construction is left with vacant lots in existing neighborhoods or parcels of a few acres that might have been shorn of trees years earlier.

“There aren’t a lot of sites that have trees on them anymore,” Padilla said.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender