Committee seems ready to compromise on proposed tree rules

  • Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2013 12:31 a.m.
    UPDATED: Thursday, April 11, 2013 12:32 a.m.

SALISBURY — City Council members made it clear Wednesday they do not want new tree rules to hamper commercial development in Salisbury.

Brian Miller and Karen Alexander met with city staff and several developers to hash out controversial proposed rules that would require businesses to plant more trees.

“We just want to make sure we don’t do something that causes us to hurt economic development,” Miller said.

Miller and Alexander said they want to better understand the suggested rules. Alexander said she does not like a requirement that developers would have to replant land that has been cleared if it sits idle for more than a year.

Planting seedlings and then ripping them out when the developer eventually finds a buyer would be a waste, Alexander said.

There appeared to be room for compromise on that requirement, as well as others. The committee will meet again at 8 a.m. next Wednesday at the city’s One Stop Development Shop at 132 N. Main St.

Advocates of the rules, which were proposed by the city’s Tree Board to curb air pollution, said the regulations could help attract businesses by improving air quality and showing progressive developers that Salisbury values trees.

A proposed requirement that new development must have a 30 percent overall tree canopy — one tree per 500 square feet, or 91 trees for a 3.5-acre site — is low compared to other cities, advocates said.

“They are going to say, ‘This is great,’” City Planner Lynn Raker said.

If the city doesn’t beef up its tree canopy requirements, some developers may look elsewhere, Raker said. Trees are considered one way to measure a community’s quality of life.

“They might say, ‘We are not coming there because they don’t value their tree canopy,’” she said.

The 30 percent requirement would have meant five additional trees — 33 instead of 28 — at the new Family Dollar on Jake Alexander Boulevard. But Alexander said she is concerned the requirement could force developers to scale down buildings on small parcels like those on East Innes Street

“I agree in theory but I’m trying to see how it applies, because that’s what we have to deal with in the real world,” said Alexander, an architect.

City staff will apply the proposed rules to several existing sites to see how the canopy requirement and other regulations would affect development, including the future home of Waffle House on East Innes Street (the former Jade Express restaurant) and 100 acres of forest owned by Livingstone College with an option to buy by Charlotte developer Childress Klein.

A development already under way would be allowed to go forward under existing rules.

Tree Board members spent years coming up with the draft rules not for aesthetics, which they said is a nice by-product, but for environmental reasons. Salisbury and Rowan County are part of a designated non-attainment area, a large region around Charlotte with poor air quality.

Barbara Perry, who leads several city efforts devoted to community appearance, said the near loss of Spencer Woods two years ago brought clear cutting to people’s attention.

A developer almost clear cut a section of the 42-acre forest near downtown Spencer before the LandTrust for Central North Carolina intervened and purchased the property.

“Spencer Woods scared a lot of ordinary people who realized that what was around you, no matter where you live, could be cut down with no future,” Perry said.

Perry said while developers and business owners have been outspoken against the rules, “ordinary people” are in favor and want regulations.

If City Council passes the new rules, property owners will need a permit to clear cut land larger than three acres. They also would have to clean up debris.

But the controversial part governs what happens after clear cutting. As drafted, the rules give property owners 18 months (a one-year deadline and a six-month extension) to start construction on cleared land.

If not, they would have two choices — plant at least 36 shade trees per acre, or plant tree seedlings in every 10-by-10-foot area.

Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development Commission, said cleared but undeveloped land like the Trevey site can sit vacant for years. Requiring owners to replant trees would lessen the marketability of the land, Van Geons said.

“A year and a half in the development business is just a blink,” developer Victor Wallace said.

City staff seemed ready to compromise on the deadline.

“The year’s gone,” Preston Mitchell, the city’s Planning and Development Services manager, told Wallace. “We are looking at a minimum of two years and then six months.”

Mitchell’s suggestion to align the tree replanting rules with vesting rights — which can span two to five years and beyond — seemed to meet with general agreement.

“We would not require plant-back during that guaranteed vested period,” Mitchell said.

Several recent developments would have met and even exceeded the higher standards of the new rules, including Wallace Commons on Julian Road at Interstate 85 and the new Aldi at the corner of Brenner Avenue and Jake Alexander Boulevard.

Childress Klein’s clearing of the 15-acre Aldi site, which is home to only the grocery store so far, would have been allowed under the new rules because the developer needed to install utilities and stormwater controls throughout the site, Mitchell said. In most cases, the rules would allow clearing only in stages on phased developments.

Mitchell seemed ready to suggest that City Council allow developers to clear more than one phase at a time, if a site’s topography requires significant “balancing,” or moving dirt from one area to another to achieve flat land.

Drummond Village, a large development off Stokes Ferry Road that failed, is an example of what the rules are designed to prevent. Developers cleared acres of trees, then the project collapsed, Mitchell said.

Raker said the city needs to do something to help improve air quality. RowanWorks EDC has already lost one client due to the number of poor air quality days, she said.

Alexander said she wants to determine if the rules would have any unintended consequences. “This is the time to do that before we lose a project,” she said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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