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Clayton Tree-Replacement Proposal Worries Aldermen

The board tabled a vote on the measure April 10 over concerns about cost and government overreach into homeowners yards.

An ordinance Clayton officials say would help maintain tree cover in the city has been tabled by the Board of Aldermen. That's because some of the representatives are concerned the law represents a government overreach into homeowners' landscaping plans.

At issue is Bill No. 6314, which would amend city code by adding a new article titled "Residential Tree and Landscape Requirements." City Manager Craig Owens told the board that city staff have been working for at least two years to track and address the loss of the city's tree canopy.

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Outgoing Ward 3 Alderman Steve Lichtenfeld, who serves as the aldermanic representative to the city's Plan Commission, said residential trees have been on the decline in Clayton for the past decade or so as new homes have been built.

"We were beginning to lose much of our tree cover in the redeveloped area," Lichtenfeld said. "Hopefully this will assist in retaining some of the trees and encouraging people to build responsibly and keep existing trees or encourage them to replace those trees either on their property or paying into the forestry fund. We also know that retaining trees of a large variety help in many other ways" such as keeping things cool and preventing water runoff.

He said he thinks city staff have done an "excellent job" to research what other areas have done and to develop new guidelines for the city.

Planning director Susan Istenes said the measure represents a change from previous code in several ways:

  • Require the submission of a Tree Protection and Replacement (TPR) plan for review by the Plan Commission for residential landscaping projects that affect trees. Such a plan "identifies existing trees on a site and outlines specific measures to protect trees during construction or other site disruptions and identifies replacement trees where required," according to the proposed code.
  • Increase the amount of required contributions into the City of Clayton Forestry Fund for trees that cannot be replaced because of yard space constraints. The city requires $120 per lost caliper inch and would increase that amount to $200 for smaller trees and $400 for larger ones. That money is then used "for acquisition of lands where trees will be preserved or for tree planting off-site on city-owned property," the code states.

The bill also outlines approved trees that homeowners can use to replace those they choose to take down as a result of landscaping. Approved large trees include the bald cypress, bur oak and red maple; medium trees include the ginkgo, river birch and yellowwood.

Law's potential costs draw concern from aldermen
The proposed changes led Ward 1 Alderman Andrea Maddox-Dallas to ask about the city's jurisdiction in tree-planting decisions. She questioned whether a homeowner wanting to pay for a $3,000 deck would also be inclined to hire a landscape architect to validate removing a tree and identify ways to replace it.

"How does it go all the way into something like a deck … on an existing house?" Maddox-Dallas said. She asked whether the problem of dwindling tree cover is one found in existing residential areas or mainly in new developments.

"I think it's really both," said Istenes, noting that the landscape is starting to get squeezed out as building happens.

Ward 2 Alderman Michelle Harris agreed with Maddox-Dallas, saying that the possible cost of a home addition plus compliance with the city's landscape code concerns her.

"I think that that would be a real barrier to upgrading a home," Harris said.

Istenes said that she is willing to look into the issue but that the purpose of the forestry fund is to encourage homeowners to redesign or reconsider plans that might affect trees.

"That really is the motivation," Istenes said. "If it's easy to just pay out and not replace trees, then there's no motivation to do so." She pointed out that the code permits homeowners to replace lost trees and then cover the remaining balance by paying into the forestry fund.

The issue of decks has come before the Plan Commission many times, Lichtenfeld said.

"Over the years, we have seen many relatively large trees be taken out for even a simple deck," Lichtenfeld said. "But we've also seen some very creative decks that have respected the trees, either by being built around them " or by being built in a slightly different location.

Trees list and government overreach also raised as worries

Outgoing Ward 1 Alderman Judy Goodman said she is concerned about mandating that residents plant certain types of trees. She said she supports the spirit of the ordinance and the need for canopy trees but would suggest an alternative.

"I'm wondering if perhaps there could be an incentive to plant that canopy tree," Goodman said. She also asked whether the city has received adequate public input on the issue.

Istenes responded that the city has emailed contractors who do business in Clayton, posted information on its website since January, notified neighborhood trustees and alerted residents via the CityViews newsletter.

Maddox-Dallas said she sees some inequity in the measure because yards in Ward 1 often are small. That might limit homeowners' ability to comply with the tree ordinance. She also cautioned that if a deck is built around a tree, the tree might die.

She said she knows Clayton is proud to be a city that supports trees.

"In the heart of it too I'm thinking, well, I'm also a U.S. citizen, and what if I don't want those trees in my backyard? What if my preference is for something else?"

Ward 2 Alderman Cynthia Garnholz said she is struggling with the same thing. She said that she has no problem applying it to new construction but that applying it to additions, decks and patios "to me seems like an overreach on the part of city government."

A homeowner who has less green space after performing a home addition should have the right to plant an ornamental tree instead of a large deciduous one, she said.

More discussion planned this week, May 8

The aldermen decided to table the measure April 10. They are expected to discuss the bill at a City Hall strategic planning session Friday and will again review the measure at their May 8 meeting.

Mayor Linda Goldstein said while she doesn't want the board to rubber-stamp anything, she wished Plan Commission representatives could have been present to explain their rationale in developing the bill.

"I feel like we're empowering certainly a very important commission, and they're telling us that they need certain tools to do their job, and now we're second-guessing their expertise," Goldstein said.

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