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Development 101: Tree protections and regulations

Banded trunks show longleaf pine trees identified as having red-cockaded woodpecker nests
Banded trunks show longleaf pine trees identified as having red-cockaded woodpecker nests

One of the biggest complaints related to new developments is the loss of tree cover. In part 2 of this series on development, WHQR’s Ben Schachtman interviews reporter Kelly Kenoyer after she dug into the requirements around development and trees.

Want the big picture? Development 101: A look at the how the process works in the Cape Fear region

Ben Schachtman: It’s time for our favorite topic: trees!

Kelly Kenoyer: Yeah! People love them! And hate when they get cut down. Whether it’s the diseased trees on Market that are being removed by the city of Wilmington because they’re a hazard, or trees on undeveloped land that people love to look at.

BS: We hear all the time that residents are concerned about development because of its impact on the urban canopy — and just the look and feel of the region.

KK: Exactly. That’s why the city and the county have both instituted tree requirements in their land use development codes to protect or replace trees when developers build new buildings. And they have landscaping requirements to beautify the land after they finish construction. Certain trees even require an extensive permitting and hearing process to be removed, which is a serious and effective deterrent.

BS: So what does all that look like?

KK: Let’s just look at city policy. This actually happens really early in the process — basically the first time a developer comes to the city to ask about zoning or rezoning. The staff will tell them they need a tree inventory, and it has to be performed by a professional arborist, urban forester, or landscape architect. They’ll figure out exactly where every tree is, where its roots are, the species and size. Plus, they’ll identify protected trees, which fall into several categories.

BS: Which are?

KK: There are regulated, significant, and specimen trees. Basically, regulated trees are smaller trees of certain common species, like dogwood and long leaf pine. Significant trees are larger versions of those same species, and specimen trees are the beautiful, old trees of beloved native species like Live Oak, Pond Cypress, and Bald Cypress. Invasive species aren’t protected at all. But these special trees have increasing protections as they increase in size and value.

BS: So what protections are there for the trees in these categories?

KK: Well, the developer has to try to avoid cutting them if it’s at all possible: they can only be removed if site improvements can’t be accommodated anywhere else on the site. A minimum of 15 trees need to be retained or planted per acre of disturbed land. The significant and specimen trees have to be preserved or relocated, or have to be “mitigated.”

BS: So that ‘mitigated’ causes some frustration — because trees can be cut down, even some beloved old-growth trees — though, as I understand it, developers do have to replace them or pay a fee?

KK: They have to basically replace the trees at a rate of 200%. So trees are measured by their diameter at the trunk, right? If the developer is cutting down a significant black pine that’s 20 inches in diameter, they’ll need to plant 40 inches in diameter worth of trees. Finding trees that are that size is difficult, so it would likely be planting many smaller trees to make up for cutting one bigger tree.

BS: What if they don’t fit on the property?

KK: I asked about that. Here’s Brian Chambers, a planner with the city of Wilmington.

Brian Chambers: "If you can't accommodate those trees on site, you're paying into a fund where the city goes out and plants trees on other locations.”

KK: They’ll pay $175 per caliper inch that gets cut down without being replaced.

BS: Seems like, at least on paper, it’s a pain to cut them down.

KK: And sometimes, developers are all but banned from cutting down trees: specifically the specimen trees. They need a special permit to cut one of those, and they also need to go to a public hearing at the Board of Adjustment (an appointed board that oversees a host of technical issues and appeals from other agencies and departments).

KK: And even if the developer goes to that hearing, the board can just say no, you have to keep this tree and plan around it. So those big specimen trees are hard to cut down.

BS: That is a lot of protections. Although I have to say, I’ve personally covered stories of developers flouting these rules — and the city not doing a great job of enforcing the consequences. And, even when they do, there’s still that jarring change to the look of an area — take for example the clear cutting of trees for the CenterPoint development on Eastwood.

KK: Yeah….. they’re supposed to get replaced, unless they’re invasive, but they might not be quite as old and beautiful. I will say, what we covered today is the tree policy, but it doesn’t even really get into landscaping requirements. This is also a really early part of the process, since the trees are already on site and can’t easily move. The arborist’s findings really inform the entire future of a project.

BS: Fascinating stuff. Thanks Kelly!

KK: No problem.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.