By Julia Reiskind & Meg Niederhofer
Proposed changes to weaken Gainesville’s Tree Ordinance will be presented to the City’s Plan Board at 6:30 pm on July 26th at Gainesville City Hall. See the details below.
This is a follow up from the April 2018 Voter article regarding proposed changes to the city’s Land Development Code (The Code) that would weaken the Tree Ordinance approved by the City Commission in 2013. The goal of the ordinance is protection of high-quality healthy heritage trees of certain size and species, removal of which results in a fee (an impact fee) to be placed in the Tree Mitigation Trust fund (the fund). Thus, developers have the option of saving the trees or paying into the fund. The language of the ordinance reads:
This fund may be used for new tree plantings associated with public improvement projects or for the preservation of trees through the purchase of conservation lands but shall not be used for tree maintenance or toward the installation of new trees that would already be required for a development.
Monies from this fund cannot be spent on general maintenance, the cost of which should come from the city’s general fund. Additionally, monies should not be used to purchase trees for a development project undertaken by the City; funding for these must be included in the cost of the project.
The value of keeping these trees cannot be overstated. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere releasing oxygen, disperse rainwater reducing erosion and storm water runoff, and most importantly provide much needed shade both in- and outdoors. Examples of heritage trees are live oaks, magnolias, bald cypress: hallmarks of Gainesville’s urban forest. The removal of a 40-inch live oak exacts a penalty fee of $28,000. Other native species, but not considered high-quality, exact a lesser penalty.
By early 2018 the fund had grown to approximately $2.6 million due principally to developers choosing to remove, rather than preserve, heritage trees, but also to the city’s absence of an arborist and urban forester to steer replanting projects and assess lands for purchase for conservation/parks. These positions have been filled and most recently the city committed $1 million for the purchase of 770 acres of environmentally sensitive land that will aid in water protection plus help to complete the city’s greenbelt; part will be used as a public park.
In 2015 the then City Commission approved the concept of changes to the ordinance due to complaints of developers about the cost of tree removal, even though documentation showed that the ordinance was working, although not as effectively as hoped. After several well-attended meetings in early 2016 concerning proposed changes to the tree ordinance, the city’s Department of Doing (DoD) formed an eight-member “stakeholders committee” to craft changes that would distinctly weaken the ordinance. It became clear that this action removed public input. The League sent a letter to the City Commission and requested a well-advertised public meeting for true stakeholders.
However, in the month following the League’s letter, it became clear that the DoD was planning to railroad the crafted changes to the ordinance through the city’s Plan Board and the Commission, bypassing the city’s Tree Advisory Board (the Board) – which had been set up years ago to advise the Commission on tree-related matters - and eliminating a public meeting. Two League members met with DoD staff and were promised that the Board’s advice would be considered and that a public meeting would be held.
On June 26th, the the Board met with a planner from the DoD, who presented the changes to the code as they related to the Tree Ordinance, principally as to how the tree funds were to be spent. Suggestions broadened allowed uses ranging from landscaping (shrubs and sod) to general maintenance (tree trimming) to plans to manage the urban canopy. While these uses may be worthy, they do not adhere to the original ordinance language (see above). They do not address mitigation of the removal of heritage trees. They are routine city expenditures.
At its July 11th meeting the Tree Advisory Board made a significant decision to advise the City Commission to retain the language as currently written regarding expenditure of the fund’s monies, and did approve three additional uses of the tree fund monies:
- An ecological assessment of the urban forest every five years.
- An update of the urban forest management plan every ten years.
- To allow developers to use money that they would pay for mitigation on improvements for trees planted in the right-of-way adjacent to their development. These could take the form of strategies that would provide more room for street trees (expand the planting area) or would prevent soil compaction (a very common cause of trees failing to thrive on busy roads).
Whether the Department of Doing will honor the counsel of the Tree Advisory Board regarding the changes to the Land Development Code in its presentation to the Plan Board on July 26th at 6:30 PM in City Hall is unknown. However, the Tree Advisory Board’s decisions are clear confirmation that the tree experts charged with advising the City Commission would like to preserve the integrity of the community’s efforts to protect our heritage trees, and, ultimately, whether the present City Commission will approve the Tree Advisory Board’s advice and not follow the previous Commission’s desire to weaken the Tree Ordinance.