‘We’re losing our beauty’: Charlotte OKs changes to tree rules despite opposition

The Charlotte City Council approved new regulations Monday that give developers flexibility in placing trees on urban sites, despite concern from some environmental activists.

The new rules, passed in a 9-2 vote, would apply to redefined “urban zones,” largely in uptown and along the light rail, and allow trees to be planted on rooftops, planters, plazas or other locations to meet city requirements. The changes also allow for tree areas that are essentially urban parks with amenities like landscaping and pathways.

The amendment to the tree ordinance comes as officials have said it would be difficult to meet a 2011 goal of having 50% tree canopy cover by 2050. Instead, the city plans to focus on neighborhood-specific metrics.

Preserving the tree canopy Charlotte is known for is becoming more difficult as large swaths of land are developed across the city.

City officials say the rules approved Monday will make it easier for developers to meet the tree save requirements for projects in urban areas, where space is tight. The city also says the changes will result in no net loss of trees required under the ordinance.

Our tree ordinance was developed a long time ago, and really Charlotte was a much different, suburban place,” said Alyson Craig, the city’s deputy planning director. “It was really about preservation of tree canopy in certain areas, and it doesn’t translate to the urban environment that we have right now.”

Charlotte’s tree canopy

But some environmental activists argue that the rules give developers flexibility at the expense of tree canopy. According to the latest assessment, 46.8% of the city is covered by tree canopy.

The percentage of space required to be set aside for tree growth is not changing under the new rules — but advocates say that planting trees on rooftops or in planters won’t result in the same kind of canopy coverage.

“I’m just questioning whether putting trees in pots, putting them on terraces, but to the exclusion of trees we’d otherwise have on the ground, if that really is a good idea,” Council member Matt Newton said Monday. He voted against the measure. “Are we limiting longevity?”

Sarah Hart, a SouthPark resident who has been involved with efforts opposing the changes, said the tree ordinance should live up to its goals related to emissions, health and other issues.

“I don’t think flexibility for developers is one of the purposes,” she said.

In a letter to the mayor and city council, Rick Judson, chairman of the board of governors of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, said the revisions provide incentives to developers to plant trees on site, rather than paying the fee-in-lieu, which pushes the canopy outside of urban areas.

“It places trees in areas where people want to congregate, socialize and enjoy open space,” he said. “Current requirements are restrictive of where trees can be located.”

Developers now are allowed to pay a fee, which goes into a fund used to buy land dedicated to tree preservation. The city has said that for every 1 acre of land of lost tree save area, the city is able to buy 4 acres for preservation.

Although we get four acres for one, it’s elsewhere,” Peter Grisewood, the city’s urban forestry supervisor, told the council. “And those urban areas, we feel like they need it the most.”

Revising tree ordinance

Council member Dimple Ajmera, who voted against the changes, said at Monday’s meeting the new rules should have addressed the razing of trees to make way for new development, and replacing them with saplings. Ajmera made a motion to defer the decision, but it failed.

“Once the development has occurred, once the trees have been cut, that’s a lost opportunity for us,” Ajmera said.

Officials are planning a citywide revamp of the tree ordinance as part of its new Unified Development Ordinance.

“(The revised ordinance) is not absolving us of the larger work that needs to be done to the tree ordinance,” said council member Braxton Winston.

The changes affect about 4% of the city, but Kim Hombes, a member of the city’s Tree Advisory Committee, said the definition of urban is changing as the city grows. She fears that Charlotte is losing its identity as trees are cut down.

“(The tree canopy) is kind of our crowning jewel,” she said. “People are attracted here because of the trees. .. And we’re losing our beauty and our quality of life.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

Danielle Chemtob covers economic growth and development for the Observer. She’s a 2018 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and a California transplant.