Cary aims for more preservation, flexibility in crafting new tree rules

aspecht@newsobserver.comJune 13, 2014 

— Town leaders believe a new set of guidelines for removing trees in Cary would preserve more of the town’s most valuable trees and give developers more flexibility.

Developers have complained that Cary’s rules for removing trees are too rigid. So the town temporarily loosened its rules in December with the intent of pursuing sweeping reform some time this year.

After months of meeting with developers, environmentalists and residents, town staff recently drafted a list of suggestions and presented it to the Cary Town Council on Thursday.

Under the drafted rules, developers and town staff would likely have to spend more time in the site plan approval process.

But, in theory, Cary would save more trees and developers would get more leeway in planning their projects because the rules would include incentives to preserve trees.

For instance, Cary would consider allowing a developer to reduce the number of required parking spaces by up to 25 percent if the developer preserves more trees than required.

The town would also consider allowing developers to reduce the number of natural islands required in parking lots and the required amount of community gathering space, among other compromises.

Furthermore, Cary would no longer require developers to survey their entire site – only areas that would be disturbed by development and those within 100 feet of a valuable tree.

The town would require developers to hire an arborist to evaluate potentially valuable trees. That would be an extra expense for developers, said Ricky Barker, Cary’s associate planning director.

“But we feel like it’s in everybody’s interest,” he said. “It’s only the healthy trees that they have to focus on saving. So it would be good for them to identify the health of the trees.”

Town staff also recommends changing Cary’s definition of “champion trees,” which currently refers to trees that are 30 inches or larger in diameter.

Under rules drafted by staff, pine trees would need to be 40 inches in diameter to achieve champion status. Other tall trees would need to be 32 inches in diameter to be considered especially valuable.

Certain smaller trees – such as dogwoods, horticulture cherries, redbuds, silverbells and serviceberrys – would be considered valuable once they reach 12 inches in diameter.

Different tree species are considered valuable in the marketplace at different sizes. But setting a specific champion diameter for each tree species “would have been a nightmare for us to monitor and for developers to administer,” said Al Swanstrom, chairman of Cary’s Planning and Zoning Board.

Focus on certain trees

The town would, however, attempt to preserve certain champion trees more than others.

Cary would put high priority on saving champion trees that are located in prominent locations – like those alongside roads and greenways – as well as those that are bigger than 40 inches in diameter or are in a group of other champion trees.

Town Council members said they liked most of the suggestions, but they rejected some too.

Lori Bush was among several members who opposed a suggestion that would allow developers to reduce their perimeter tree buffer if they saved champion trees elsewhere on the site.

“Any time we start touching these buffers and streetscapes, we start meddling with what it means to be Cary,” she said.

They made suggestions too.

Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson wondered if Cary should provide so many incentives to save individual champion trees.

“I’d rather have a bunch of young oak saplings – a bunch – than one old tree saved,” she said.

Councilman Don Frantz suggested the town allow developers to reduce the size of residential lots in their site proposal if they save a certain number of champion trees.

Cary staff will draft such an incentive and present the drafted list of rules to the council again next month, Barker said.

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

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