Group says Cary’s tree-removal rules need trimming

aspecht@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2013 

Rob Wilson, a principal planner for Cary, takes notes during the stakeholders meeting Thursday about the town’s policy for removing large trees.

PAUL A. SPECHT — aspecht@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— A roundtable discussion about Cary’s controversial new rules for removing large trees yielded two conclusions.

One: Cary once had an abundance of trees, but development has claimed many of them.

Two: For the sake of preserving more trees while easing the development process, Cary should focus on preserving sections of tree-dense areas rather than single trees.

“Cary doesn’t pay attention to the forest, they just look at a single tree,” Bob Zumwalt, a landscape architect for planning firm John R. McAdams, said of the rules. “I would encourage requiring a certain amount of tree coverage on a site.”

Caitlin Burke, a member of the town’s environmental advisory board, agreed. “This seems like a very piecemeal approach,” she said.

Zumwalt and Burke were among 16 stakeholders Cary invited to a meeting Thursday to offer recommendations for improving the town’s recently revised champion tree ordinance.

In June, Cary enacted rules that prohibit people from removing a champion tree unless the tree is damaged or diseased beyond repair in the eyes of a tree expert. Champion trees are trees that are bigger than 30 inches in diameter or considered especially valuable. Those whose plans do not meet town standards would have to seek approval from the Town Council.

Developers decried the change as drastic, saying it would make development more costly and time consuming.

Previously, people were allowed to cut down champion trees as long as they received permission from the planning director. Cary amended the ordinance because the old version gave the planning director little guidance in ruling on requests.

Thursday, developers said they supported Cary’s attempt to make the process more predictable – but that the new rules will have the opposite effect.

The town rule allows for the removal of champion trees if they have “abnormalities,” said Jeremy Medlin, vice president of land development for M/I Homes of Raleigh. But Medlin said the ordinance isn’t clear enough on what constitutes a tree abnormality.

Tom Anhut, division president for Ashton Woods Homes, suggested the town revisit its definition of champion trees altogether. “Just because something is 30 inches doesn’t make it worth saving,” he said.

If the town doesn’t provide more flexibility to developers, some said, the new rules might have unintended consequences.

The ordinance was meant for developers, not residential property owners, said Ricky Barker, Cary’s associate planning director.

But Ganesh Kristipati, a resident and land investor, said residents may actually cut down trees that are on the verge of gaining “champion” status to make their land more appealing to developers. “Give them options,” Kristipati said.

The stakeholders had other suggestions, too. Cary should consider offering incentives to preserve trees, according to Cary resident William Krick and Lois Nixon, who chairs the Capital Area Trees Program.

Otherwise, the group didn’t find much common ground. Stakeholders couldn’t even agree if stringent tree rules would help or hurt residential property owners.

Anhut said the new rules have private property owners “revving” the engines of their chainsaws.

“People understand how their property values will diminish if something like this stays in place,” he said.

Burke, the Cary environmental board member, countered: “Trees increase property values. Studies show that.”

After the meeting, town staff had nine large sheets of paper full of suggestions and comments. The Planning and Zoning Board is expected to review the comments and reach a recommendation for Town Council next month.

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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