Treed off

The city's tree ordinance has more holes than the ozone layer

On Wednesday, April 16, shortly after the Dallas City Council begins its weekly meeting, Mayor Ron Kirk will smile for the cameras and accept a Tree City, USA award honoring Dallas' efforts on behalf of tree preservation.

Sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation, the award consists of a plaque, a flag, and signs which can be posted at the city limits designating Dallas a "Tree City."

Why is Dallas--a city hardly known for its bucolic bounty--deserving of this auspicious recognition? Primarily because the city, after much rancorous debate between tree huggers and developers, finally passed a tree ordinance in 1994. The ordinance doesn't prevent tree destruction so much as it forces property owners and developers to make amends for the trees they level.

At least, that's the intent.
But mention the "Tree City" award to local tree lovers and they laugh, because Dallas' tree ordinance has more holes in it than the ozone layer.

"Dallas, a tree city--that's pretty amusing," says Steve Howser, a trustee of the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition, a group of citizens that banded together "to fill the gaps and loopholes in the ordinance."

The tree ordinance does not save existing trees. Instead, it requires developers and homeowners to replace trees they've removed. The city only denies a request for tree removal in limited situations. "Say a retailer wants to cut down a tree that's blocking his sign--well, he can just move the sign," says Kassandra McLaughlin, chief arborist for the city. Her four-person staff, housed within the Department of Planning and Economic Development, is responsible for enforcing the ordinance.

In short, developers can still bulldoze trees with abandon. But, under the tree ordinance, they have to replace them either on or within a mile of the property they denuded. Or they have the option of donating new trees to the Parks Department. The problem is, the Parks Department doesn't have money to plant and maintain donated trees, which often take at least two years of constant watering before their root systems take hold.

"This could become a big problem for us in the future," says Paul Dyer, director of Parks and Recreation.

Homeowners are already crying foul over the case of Churchill Pointe. A new development of zero-lot-line homes north of Forest Lane on Hillcrest, Churchill Pointe was a heavily-wooded area with 144 beautiful mature red oaks and cedar elms, among other varieties. The developer, John Raphael, knocked down 130 of them. He replaced about a third of the trees on the property itself. He then signed a letter of intent to donate a bunch of new trees to the Parks Department, which won't finish replanting them all for at least six to seven years, according to Dyer.

"If we have another five to six cases like this, we'll be in real trouble," says Dyer.

Dyer would like to see the ordinance amended. Instead of donating trees, he thinks it would make more sense for developers to simply pay cash, which the department could then use to hire a contractor to plant, maintain, and guarantee the trees.

"There would be fewer trees, but they would get planted faster," he says. Dyer has sent a letter recommending this amendment to Cherryl Peterman, the city's director of planning and development, who told Dyer she would look into it.

But Nadine Bell, president of the Hillcrest Forest Area Coalition, thinks even that proposal would shortchange neighborhoods. She thinks developers should be assessed the price of replacement trees, plus the cost of planting and maintaining them.

Lois Finkelman, former head of the Park Board and now a candidate for city council, agrees. "I think it makes sense to revisit the ordinance," Finkelman says. "What is needed is money to plant and maintain the trees if the developers are not willing to do it out of the goodness of their hearts."

There is one other option for developers to mitigate tree destruction by giving to a tree reforestation fund administered by McLaughlin's office. But--unlike in Dyer's proposal--donating to the reforestation fund requires covering not only the cash value of the trees, but costs for planting and maintenance.

The arborist's office estimates the cost of replacing trees that are cut down by starting at $1,090 for a tree that's eight inches in diameter and adding $36 for every additional inch. Maintenance costs are then added to that number, for a final tally of how much a developer pays. If the Churchill Pointe developer, for example, wanted to make amends this way, it would have cost him $67,000.

But this option has its own strange loophole, according to McLaughlin. She says the city attorney who wrote the original ordinance advised her that she can use the funds to buy trees, but not to plant them. Go figure.

So, instead, McLaughlin says, she has been searching for volunteer groups who might be willing to plant and take care of trees paid for by the reforestation fund. She has found several neighborhood associations who have been eager to do so.

And there is yet another way to circumvent the tree ordinance. McLaughlin says developers have been known to get the planning commission to approve--over the arborist's objections--a landscape plan that calls for mitigating substantially fewer trees than the law envisions.

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