Trees. If you don’t love them already (most people do), you should learn to love them. They’re not only a key part of fighting climate change, but they’ll play a crucial role in mitigating the worst impacts of climate change, particularly in urban environments where increased temperatures are made all the more miserable by urban heat island effect.
So it’s a good thing that there are people in Austin who are vigilant about tree protection. And it’s a good thing that our current and future code seek to preserve our biggest trees, otherwise known as Heritage Trees. The bigger the tree, the more valuable it is environmentally. It absorbs more carbon dioxide and its sprawling roots absorb more water, which helps to prevent flooding.
And yet, the hard truth is that there are legitimate reasons to take down a tree. Even a healthy one. Tree preservation should not come at the expense of housing. First, because that obviously aggravates the housing shortage that hits low-income people the hardest. Denying housing in central neighborhoods simply leads to more sprawl, which leads to more car use and more CO2 emissions, thereby counteracting whatever environmental benefit was achieved by preserving the tree.
Currently any tree is “protected” if it is at least 19 inches in diameter. To remove it, you need a permit from the city. Staff must determine that it meets one of seven criteria for removal, including that it’s dead, diseased or “prevents a reasonable use of the property.”
A tree is a Heritage Tree if it’s one of nine species native to Central Texas and is at least 24 inches. To remove one of those, you need to get a variance from the city Environmental Commission. If the Heritage Tree is at least 30 inches, you need to get approval from either the Zoning & Platting Commission or the Planning Commission, depending where the property is.
In addition to preserving old trees, the code often requires builders to plant new ones. For instance, currently residential builders are generally required to plant 2-3 trees per lot based on the size of the lot. However, this requirement is enforced through the site plan process, which 1-2 unit projects are exempt from. So single-family or duplex infill projects are functionally exempt from the planting requirement.
What the new code does
As far as I can see, there are only two meaningful changes to tree rules in the new code:
1. Small infill projects will be subject to planting requirements
2. Certain Projects located on the transit priority network will be able to more easily to take down heritage trees
The first change has infill builders very worried. Again, the planting requirement didn’t technically change, but it was moved out of site plan to another part of the code that infill projects will be subject to. You may already have 15 trees on the lot but you’re required to plant three more, which may render the project impossible. I’m less concerned about the impact on 1-2 unit projects and more concerned about the impact on larger missing-middle developments. I don’t want anything that encourages builders to do a big single-family house instead of 3-4 units.
As for #2, the new code does not give builders a blank check to remove any trees just because they’re located on the TPN. It simply allows them to get a permit to remove a heritage tree administratively, rather than going to the Environmental Commission. But ONLY if the project is 50% residential and 10% of the units are affordable. That’s an extremely narrow exception.
The black lines below, btw, make up the TPN. You can zoom in closer here.
An amendment added by Paige Ellis seeks to encourage builders to preserve trees even if they have the right to take them down.
Her proposal will allow builders some additional flexibility (perhaps height, setback etc) in development rules if they opt to preserve a heritage tree instead of getting a variance to cut it down. The idea is that the city could relax some rules to allow them to achieve the same project size (in terms of units or square footage) that they would be able to get if they removed the tree.
In sum, the new code may very well end up mandating more tree planting than currently and the changes to tree preservation are pretty modest tweaks in service of important economic and environmental goals.
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