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Facing rapid development, Arlington plans measures to preserve trees 'unique' to city

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 7/29/2020 By Haley Samsel, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

More than 25 years after Arlington adopted its first ordinance to preserve trees, City Council members and environmental advocates are leading an effort to update the ordinance in the face of rapid residential and commercial development.

Spearheaded by Arlington Council Member Sheri Capehart and the council’s Environmental Task Force, the movement to amend the city’s tree policies has spanned more than six months of presentations and debate. The central goal? To encourage real estate developers to preserve trees, particularly those native to Arlington, rather than cut them down and plant replacements elsewhere.

“With every development, there are trees that are removed and that is an irreplaceable loss,” Richard Gertson, Arlington’s assistant director of planning and development services, said. “There’s no time like the present to recognize that fact and say: Let’s make the effort now, going forward, to try and encourage preservation and encourage education of the public on the importance of preservation.”

Council members and environmentalists hope that amending tree policies will allow Arlington to preserve more of the Cross Timbers ecoregion, which spans from southeastern Kansas into central Oklahoma and central Texas. The city is in the eastern Cross Timbers, a hardwood upland forest that is home to trees like the post oak, a slow-growing species that has adapted to extreme droughts and often lives for hundreds of years.

“There is no other city in the Metroplex that is mostly Cross Timbers like Arlington is,” said David Hopman, an associate professor of landscape architecture at UT Arlington who gave a presentation to council members about the region in January. “Arlington has the potential to have a unique character if we will take it seriously and really work to protect it.”

Arlington has a traditional toolbox of methods to preserve or reduce the loss of trees when an area is developed, Gertson said. For example, a developer building a residential subdivision in Arlington must preserve at least 35% of existing trees, according to the unified development code. For a commercial area, developers must replace trees on a one-to-one basis if they choose to remove them.

Under that formula, post oaks are treated the same as any other tree. A proposed change would put a premium on post oaks and other native oak trees, Gertson said. If a real estate developer elects to preserve an 18 caliper-inch post oak, their preservation formula would give them “extra credit” and count the tree as 36 caliper-inches, the measurement used by landscapers to measure trunk diameter.

“This is a premium if you preserve it and vice versa: If you remove it, then you’ve got to make up for it in an extra way,” Gertson said. “It counts two times if you remove it, and you’ve got to double your effort to replace.”

The original policy, which was adopted in 1994, also mandated that a tree had to be 30 caliper-inches or bigger for developers to count the tree toward fines they owe the city for destroying trees, Hopman said. Under the proposed amendment, developers would have to count any tree that is 18 caliper-inches or greater toward the fines or number of trees they would have to replace.

Even an 18-inch tree in Arlington could be 75 or 100 years old, according to Hopman, who is pushing the city to make the limit as low as possible. However, he applauds council members for “moving in the right direction.”

“They have a carrot and they have a stick right now, but I think we need more carrots and more sticks because it’s not really resulting in changing behavior,” Hopman said. “If we give more credit for preservation and we have more penalty on removal, it might actually result in them moving a building or moving a road a little bit.”

Developers in Arlington currently choose between three options: pay $100 per caliper-inch of the trees they destroy, plant new trees that add up to the caliper-inches they cut down or keep the trees and avoid fines altogether. For many developers, it can be cheaper to pay those fines and build as planned than to preserve the trees, Hopman said.

“Right now, the penalty for wiping out the trees is so minor compared to anything else that it’s just not resulting in changing behavior,” he said.

In addition, if developers show a commitment to saving post oaks during a project, city officials may reduce the amount of parking spots that developers are required to build according to city regulations. Ignacio Nuñez, who represents District 5 on the council, said these proposals reflect a shift in mindset from Arlington’s leadership. (Capehart did not respond to an interview request for this story).

“I think a lot of mistakes were made early on because back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, if you said ecology, city leaders’ eyes glazed over,” Nuñez said. “Every single council member during this last year has become much more aware that perhaps some of the things that we’ve done in the past, we just can’t continue to do. We have to be very wise and very frugal about our development process.”

Still, council members faced criticism in June from residents advocating against a zoning change for a privately owned lot. Developers, who received approval for the zoning change at a council meeting in late June, plan to upend hundreds of trees in an effort to build townhomes along 1001 W. Mayfield Road.

At a July 7 council meeting, Gertson briefed members on the proposed plans for the tree ordinance. His next move is to bring these ideas to Arlington developers to gather their feedback and answer questions about how new amendments will be enforced. Many developers will learn about the details of the tree proposals for the first time at the city’s quarterly developer roundtable, set for Thursday.

An official ordinance has not been drafted, but Gertson said he expects a council vote to take place by late fall. Hopman hopes that the city’s efforts to educate residents about the Cross Timbers region will not stop with amendments to tree policies.

“We have this opportunity to really raise our consciousness about ecology in general by focusing on the ecology of our area,” Hopman said. “I don’t think most residents have any clue what a post oak is. They don’t know how rare they are, how valuable they are, how slow they grow. They don’t know about the eastern Cross Timbers. I think that’s a missed opportunity.”

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