The memory of trees

In recent months, numerous Asheville residents have contacted Xpress voicing concern about the loss of trees in the city.

Architectural consultant Bill Wescott observes: “In the last two years, there seems to be a lot of convenient cutting of trees for contractors, and it seems that they cut on weekends. City employees cutting trees down on off hours gets your attention. I got alarmed because almost every week, or at least a couple of times a month, you’d turn a corner where you were a couple of days ago and some major trees would be missing.”

Downtown resident Charlie Thomas agrees. “Two lovely mature trees, in perfect condition, were cut in front of the Kress Building. They were over 50 feet tall,” he notes, “and they were replaced by one tiny sapling. Several people went by to ask why, and to my knowledge, no rational reason was ever given.”

Tree cutting on city land has been in the news lately — most recently, the removal of several trees adjacent to the recently demolished J.C. Penney Building on Battery Park Avenue in downtown Asheville. But some city staffers who work with trees take a brighter view. Even in the development community, they maintain, there is greater awareness of both the need to preserve trees and how to do it.

As to cutting on Sundays, city Arborist Mark Foster says it’s done that way because that’s when there’s the least amount of traffic downtown.

The city gave permission to have the trees in front of the former JCPenney building removed, but it was the developer, not the city, who actually took them down, Foster reports. Developers on private property in the city don’t generally need permission to remove trees, but these were on the city’s right of way. “We knew that there would be a full-building demolition and that [the trees] would be doomed,” says Foster. “It’s better to be proactive in those situations.” Now the city will put in fruitless sweet gum trees and see how they do. The London plane trees that were removed had problems with diseases and were weakened by urban stresses, smog and poor soil quality, Foster explains, adding: “I know it’s been controversial. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly.”

Public Works Director Mark Combs has the final say on removing trees from city property, though he may delegate such decisions to the city arborist. The Tree Commission — made up of interested citizen volunteers and representatives from Carolina Power & Light, Quality Forward and PSNC Energy — plays an advisory role. If Foster has a question, he seeks additional input from the commission, whose members include several working arborists and gardeners, Combs explains.

The city, says Foster, does not keep track of how many trees are removed, but there are specific criteria governing tree removal. To be taken down, a tree must be dead or dying, have a structural defect that makes it unsafe, or otherwise pose a hazard to the public. “A lot of our decisions are based on risk management,” Foster explains. “We’ll preserve trees as long as it’s safe … but there are less options in crowded areas.”

Trees are not removed solely because the city prefers to put in a different species, although he allowed that “We only replace trees with something different if we know a different species would work better.”

Age is another key factor, says Foster. “We are an aging urban forest; trees get old and they die. We’re seeing the old trees get cut down, but we weren’t here to see them when they were little, and we won’t see the saplings we plant now when they are big. Perspective is a big part of it; we’re at an old phase. A lot of the trees were planted in the 1920s; it’s good to see them live this long.”

Urban conditions also affect tree health. “You won’t find a tree in the forest without some insect damage, and more so in the city,” notes Foster. Uneven growing conditions and smog weaken a tree’s resistance to disease and insects. A look at the branches reveals that some city trees are struggling, he adds. A tree should grow from the tips of its branches; bare branches are a sign of a weakened state. Some of the trees along Haywood Street fit that description, says Foster, though they’re not slated for removal anytime soon.

Input on which trees may need removal comes from various sources, including city residents, Public Works employees and the city arborist. “We’re always looking. We have a real good tree ordinance … and it’s very strong and very practical,” notes Combs. “It’s a good base for what the Tree Commission does proactively and [what] we do to keep the city safe.

“We’re very conservative,” says Combs about the city’s removal practices. “We always try to err on the side of the tree.”

But as development and renovation have gained momentum in Asheville during the last decade, preserving older trees downtown has become more of an issue. That raises the question: Is the city pro-development in its stance on what to cut? Combs and others say no.

“We used to have a gentleman that represented the development community on the commission, and he was cycled out,” says Combs. “He found out we’re a pretty pragmatic bunch; we love trees and think they have a large value to the community.”

Combs says that trees are “not typically” removed from city property at a developer’s request, but if trees in the city’s right of way are blocking a driveway entrance, for example, developers can remove them (with the city’s permission), provided that they replace them.

Preservation encouraged, not required

On privately owned development sites within the city limits, there’s no requirement that trees be preserved unless the property is within a designated historic district. “There’s no ordinance against cutting on development sites, so no one oversees that,” says Director Stacy Merten of the city’s Historic Resources Commission.

Merten worked as an Asheville city planner for five years, so she’s seen the issue of tree removal from two very different perspectives. Historic areas such as Montford and Biltmore Village have the most stringent restrictions. Property owners who want to take down trees that are more than 6 inches wide at the base must get permission from the HRC. First, the city arborist pays a visit to assess the situation, and permission is typically given only if the trees are diseased, dead or pose a hazard, says Merten. Property owners are then required to plant replacement trees.

Natural forces may account for an increase in tree removals, says Merten. Because the Montford neighborhood is more than 100 years old, many trees are simply dying. Environmental factors also affect the situation. “The drought of the past four years has had a pretty bad impact,” she reports. “And now we’re starting to see the result of that — with pests and things of that nature.”

“There’s not a lot of teeth in the [Unified Development Ordinance] for preservation; it’s mostly for planting after the project is done.”

The UDO requires developers to plant a specified number of “buffer” trees based on the size of the intended development — not on the number of trees cut down. Developers are not required to preserve existing trees, but if they choose to do so and indicate it in their development plan, they can receive credits. The bigger the preserved tree, the more credits the developer gets to offset the required number of buffer trees. But if a tree a developer promised to preserve dies within 24 months of the project’s completion, the developer must plant as many replacement trees as the deceased tree received credit for.

The city provides a list of recommended species for planting and landscaping, to help small developers who don’t have a landscaper. And Merten feels the planting requirements are becoming more accepted. “It seems like more people are on board with the planting, now that the UDO is in place for five years,” she observes.

And even though private developers aren’t required to preserve trees, Foster says the city Planning and Development Department brings him in on development projects where trees are present. “Sometimes developers are very open-minded about keeping trees,” says Foster. “But the bottom line is cost. They see it as cheaper to cut and replant trees than to work around them. But there is a trend in rebuilding to keep trees and not cut them.”

Developers play crucial role

Preserving trees requires commitment — and awareness — on the part of developers. Kasty Latven has chaired the Asheville Tree Commission since 1998. He’s worked as a tree consultant and ran a tree service in New Mexico for 20 years before moving here. “The problem with developers is that a lot of them are trying to preserve trees, but they’re not doing it properly during development, and the trees suffer for it,” says Latven, adding, “They should do it properly or not at all.”

Some developers, he notes, have learned to be more careful. Both CP&L and PSNC Energy send representatives to Tree Commission meetings and have become more knowledgeable about how to work around tree systems, Latven says. “They are doing less trenching and boring under tree root systems. Instead, they are looking for alternatives and following North Carolina standards for pruning to keep trees healthy.”

Local nonprofit Quality Forward works on a variety of environmental issues in Asheville/Buncombe. “We’ve had problems with reconstruction,” reports Executive Director Susan Roderick, who also serves on the tree commission. Developers, she says, “need to have an orange fence even outside of the drip line” — the perimeter formed by the farthest reaches of a tree’s branches.

Quality Forward makes recommendations on how developers can safely preserve trees. “The owner or architect might follow [those recommendations], but if you go out at the bulldozer level, they are in a hurry and may put a pile of dirt under a tree,” says Roderick. “You can’t do that. But it happens less and less. People are trying harder, and it’s better than it was 10 years ago.” The nonprofit holds seminars for developers and also places information on tree preservation in the office that issues permits. But the most successful strategy has been working with the city, says Roderick. “City staff has become more aware and alert” about preserving trees, she maintains.

Quality Forward also handles a lot of the replanting done on city property, using donated trees. And for the past few years, the group has teamed up with the Tree Commission to co-sponsor the Treasured Trees Program, which encourages property owners to have a special tree on their property listed as a “Treasured Tree.” About 25 trees are added to the list annually, says Roderick. The program is strictly voluntary, and listing a tree doesn’t ensure that it will never be removed. “We just hope it will make them value [the tree] more and take care of it,” she explains.

The people’s choice

For proposed developments covering at least 35,000 square feet, the city requires that all property owners within 200 feet of the development be notified, regardless of whether trees are involved, says Merten. A sign is also posted at the site telling when the city’s Technical Review Committee is scheduled to consider the development plan. The public is welcome to attend the meetings and give their input, she says. Citizen input is also welcomed at Tree Commission meetings, held the third Monday of each month at noon in the Public Works Building.

The commission, says Latven has kicked around the idea of a tree-preservation ordinance. But he adds: “I don’t know if we need an ordinance — if we need to go that far. I just wish [developers] would become better educated on that, [they can] just take the tree out or move something somewhere else if it will impact the tree.”

Thomas takes a stronger view. “It shouldn’t be determined by convenience to developers. The casual way in which large trees are being cut is outrageous,” he maintains.

Merten says she and other city staffers have talked with the Tree Commission about adding a preservation ordinance. “They would like to see more preservation; there would be more oversight,” she says. “But at this point, we’re not making any major revisions unless City Council requests it.”

Merten encourages those concerned about tree removal in the city to address City Council. “If people want more stringent measures [on tree removal and preservation], they can go to City Council,” she says, adding, “We’ll do what the people want.”

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