By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – Recently, Asheville City Council heard a presentation on the proposed tree canopy ordinance, which they may not adopt until their next meeting due to rules governing virtual public meetings. The ordinance is intended to preserve the city’s mature trees, to keep the town beautiful for tourists and residents, and to combat climate change through, among other things, making the city less of an urban heat sink and reducing stormwater runoff.
The ordinance would work like a zoning overlay, and it begins with the creation of three Resource Districts: Downtown, Urban, and Suburban. Five land uses within each of those districts are then assigned a Canopy Requirement Classification of A, B, or C. To incentivize preserving existing, large trees over planting new ones, the New Tree Canopy Installation Requirements increase linearly, but not one-to-one with the amount of canopy destroyed. That is, given an ordinance-specified Canopy Preservation Requirement, of 5%, 10%, or 15% of a tract’s area, not the number of trees; a developer preserving the required amount incurs no replanting requirement. However, for example, a developer building in a Class C site with 76%-100% existing canopy, who removes more than the Canopy Preservation Requirement, will be responsible for restoring double the amount of canopy removed below the preservation requirement, rounded to the nearest 3%.
The ordinance then explains how to calculate canopy coverage. Driplines may be used in any scenario, but aerial photography may be used for any parcel over 2 acres, and canopy credits calculated from trunk measurements and tables included in the ordinance may be used for smaller properties. “The calculation must be conducted and certified by a land surveyor, civil engineer, landscape architect licensed by the State of North Carolina, or Arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.” Developers preferring to do so may pay a fee-in-lieu, provided they are not building in tracts with aquatic buffers or Zone A or B steep slopes.
Less hyped was the “hereby signing away all rights” language in the section, “Documentation and Plan Review,” which appears to be a mandatory part of the design review process. It states, “Plans shall display the following required note: Areas designated as Tree Canopy Protection Areas shall remain as such in perpetuity. Tree removal shall be prohibited in these areas unless otherwise permitted.” The developer will be responsible for filing a copy of the statement with the Buncombe County Register of Deeds and the city’s planning department prerequisite to receiving a certificate of occupancy or compliance.
Now, suppose, somewhere in perpetuity, a tree within a Canopy Protection Area gets diseased and poses a perceived threat to the surrounding habitat. To apply for a Tree Removal Permit, the interested party must provide the city with a photograph of the tree in question; site plans showing the location of the tree and the Tree Canopy Protection Area at-risk; a letter from a certified arborist recommending removal and itemizing facts defending his conclusion; and a replanting plan for restoring the percentage of canopy lost to tree removal. Appeals are permissible. Beginning in FY 2020-2021, a tree removal permit would cost $100.
The Planning and Zoning Board voted 6-1 to deny the proposal. One complaint was it was at odds with council’s desire to create more affordable housing. Board members observed that professional tree surveys are pricey, and another part of the ordinance, putting developers on the hook for maintaining street trees for two years, could cost thousands.
Studies have been written about how the costs of compliance raise the cost of housing.
So, rather than seeing how the current proposal intersects with reports about so many Ashevillians being one paycheck away from homelessness and how the existing boatload of policies marginalizes a lot of families with no substantial gains for public health or safety, the council decided to look at five housing developments under construction and found that data wasn’t available for two. Two projects would have met the requirements without additional tree planting, and another would only have had to preserve two trees and plant 16 more.
During public comment, three spoke in favor of the ordinances. The first two, Steve Rasmussen (a.k.a. *Diuvei) and Dixie Deerman (a.k.a. Lady Passion), have long been the high priest and priestess of Coven Oldenwilde, a Wiccan community specializing in magic and spells for social and climate justice. Passion said they spoke for, “hundreds, if not thousands, of pagans and Wiccans.” Kim Roney, who participates in almost all meetings as she campaigns for a seat at the table, spoke of trees from the environmental justice angle, citing their absence in low-income neighborhoods and intentional removal from public housing for surveillance purposes. She was referring to Crime Prevention through Environmental Design strategies which, among other tools, are now popularly perceived as oppressing people with black and brown bodies by treating harmless drug dealers as the new runaway slaves.