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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Urban Tree Preservation: More Than Just Landscaping

Guest Blog Post by Attorney Keith Scully

Keith is an attorney with Gendler-Mann law firm. His practice focuses on environmental and land use matters, complex commercial litigation, civil rights litigation, and appeals from both administrative decisions and trial. 

Reminder - A Shoreline Tree Information meeting takes place TONITE, Wed., 3/24 at Richmond Beach Congregational Church, 6:30- 8:30.

Urban Tree Preservation:  More Than Just Landscaping

Shoreline is on the cusp of enacting a permanent tree preservation ordinance.  In so doing, Shoreline’s elected leaders and residents must consider the myriad benefits of trees on private property, and balance that against the need to ensure that private property rights are respected, and ensure an ordinance is created that citizens will want to follow rather than resist.

Most of us are long past the point of thinking of trees as just pretty green things.  We are well-justified in our belief that trees are one of the most important components of environmental protection.  According to studies cited by the Colorado Tree Coalition, a single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 48 pounds per year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings. Homeowners who properly place trees in their landscape can realize savings up to 58% on daytime air conditioning and as high as 65% for mobile homes. If applied nationwide to buildings not now benefiting from trees, the shade could reduce our nation’s consumption of oil by 500,000 barrels of oil/day.

In fact, a single large yard tree:
-                 • Absorbs 10 lbs of air pollutants, including 4 lbs of ozone and 3 lbs of particulates.
-         • Intercepts 760 gal of rainfall in its crown, thereby reducing runoff of polluted stormwater and flooding.
-         • Cleans 330 lbs of CO2 (90 lbs C) from the atmosphere through direct sequestration in the tree's wood
              and reduced power plant emissions due to cooling energy savings. This tree reduces the same amount 
              of atmospheric CO2 as released by a typical car driven 500 miles.
-         • Adds about 1% to the sales price of the property.

See . But protecting trees in an urban environment is a challenge, and, like most environmental legislation, a good tree preservation ordinance balances private property rights with environmental benefits.  Making sure private property rights are respected is valuable both because property rights have their own importance, and because regulations that are too draconian lead to dissent and lawbreaking. 

A good tree preservation ordinance recognizes the value of trees, and prevents landowners from removing especially valuable species, while still recognizing that the urban tree canopy must be able to change over time.  A good tree preservation ordinance prioritizes native species over non-native species, and places high value on species like Douglas Fir that provide extensive water quality, carbon storage, and wildlife habitat benefits.  A good tree ordinance also recognizes that trees en masse – either simply in a grove, or in a plant association with other species like salal and madrone - provides more value than do individual species.  A good tree ordinance provides incentives – like reduced setbacks, or density credits – for protecting trees, and penalties if the ordinance is violated and a valuable tree cut without ensuring that it will be mitigated with new plantings.  As for mitigation, it is not simply enough to drop a few seedlings into the ground and pretend there is no impact: tree starts must be of the right native species, and a maintenance and watering plan in place to ensure they survive the critical first few years.

 The ordinance cannot go too far – simply preventing any tree removal, without allowing some development of a particular parcel, violates the Constitution’s reasonable use guarantees.  But it also must have some genuine teeth to it, and ensure that landowners and real estate developers don’t have an economic incentive to simply cut the trees despite the ordinance because the penalty is so low that it is cost-effective to remove the tree.

As Shoreline considers its permanent tree protection measures, these important factors must be balanced to ensure its tree preservation ordinance preserves these valuable environmental assets, while at the same time recognizing that individual property owners must have some flexibility to develop their properties in order to ensure that Shoreline stays economically strong and at an appropriate urban density.

 Keith Scully

Attorney at Law
Gendler & Mann, LLP
1424 Fourth Avenue, Suite 715
Seattle, WA  98101
direct: 206.442.6831  mobile: 206.446.5491  fax: 206.621.0512

1 comment:

  1. Kieth Scully makes a good argument for retaining mature trees in city lots. The mention of 'mitigation' of tree removal involves documenting the qualities to be sure that the re-landscaping is adequate.

    The accepted method of appraising the financial value of a tree involves measuring tree trunk diameter size, then assigning a value based on the type of tree, the condition it is in, and the land use of the site. This process is quite complex, and is described by the publisher of the appraisal guidebook, the International Society of Arboriculture, as suitable for use only by professional arborists.

    The guidebook is 10 years old, and the process of revision is taking place. A new system called the Revised Burnley Method uses a different type of appraisal that applies the height of the tree to a formula to compute the cubic volume of the tree canopy.

    Tree height has never been used in the ISA method before, and there have been claims of underrepresenting the value of the tall trees found in the Northwest.

    Tree scientists have never been too adept at calculating the dollar value of the environmental benefits of trees. The intricacies of the disciplines involved in soil science, vegetation management, hydrology, real estate appraisal and other professions have resulted in legislators receiving mixed messages about the contribution of the urban forest o our quality of life.

    The trend is that more new laws are constantly being passed that seek to protect the urban ecosystem. There will be challenges to these laws based on the right of property owners to do anything they want with their land. The creeks & wetlands on land designated as critical areas, and have effective setbacks. But when a tree pokes it head out of the ground, it becomes a community asset, no matter where it is rooted. Zoning laws protect he rights of the community from property owners who seek to damage their neighbors surroundings. It is appropriate for municipalities to enact tree protection legislation.

    Trees with structural problems that affect public safety, or disease issues should be allowed to be removed through a painless permit process. Trees should be considered as 100 year assets. Concrete has less than a quarter of that life, and should be managed as a transitory urban fixture. When assessing the viability of a tree, its projected lifespan should be taken into account. Trees just entering the prime of life should be protected from the chainsaw and the bulldozer.