Draft of tree rules a compromise with developers; public hearing set for Sept. 17
SALISBURY — City officials and private developers have compromised on proposed tree rules designed to help clean up the air in Salisbury.
The proposed ordinance would still allow clear cutting under certain circumstances but would not require replanting as many trees or as quickly as first suggested. The draft rules still require a 30 percent tree canopy for commercial and residential developments but don’t apply to single-family homes.
“I would not be opposed to it,” said developer Victor Wallace, who attended meetings where elected officials, developers and Tree Board members hashed out details of the proposed ordinance.
The public can comment on the draft rules during a City Council public hearing at 4 p.m. Sept. 17 at City Hall. Copies are available at the city’s One Stop Shop for Development, 132 N. Main St.
Air pollution prompted the regulation. Salisbury and Rowan County are part of a designated non-attainment area, a large region around Charlotte with poor air quality.
Developers rejected the original draft, which they said would have hampered commercial and industrial recruitment and hurt economic development.
Preston Mitchell, the city’s Planning and Development Services manager, said he believes the city has struck a balance.
“We can preserve and grow the tree canopy without it being punitive on the development community,” Mitchell said.
The city currently does not regulate clear cutting — removing large numbers of trees from forested land to sell the timber or prepare the site for development. Everyone seems to agree that needs to change.
“We wanted to make sure that we were being very fair but yet being somewhat protective,” City Councilwoman Karen Alexander said. “We want to encourage development but don’t want to see what has happened in the past, when 10 acres are clear cut but then it lays fallow for 10 years.”
Alexander and Councilman Brian Miller served on the committee that debated the rules for six months. The city’s Tree Board has been working on a draft ordinance for more than two years.
Submit a plan
If the rules pass, developers could still clear cut. But first, they would have to submit to the city a site plan or even a schematic plan, which Mitchell called a “napkin plan.”
After clear cutting, developers would have to clean up the site but not remove tree stumps. Farmers and foresters would be exempt from clear cutting regulations.
“Speculative clear cutting can be detrimental to many different areas of the environment,” Mitchell said. “This tries to stifle clear cutting until development is ready to go.”
Property owners who have a wooded site for sale could thin 10 percent of the trees so prospective buyers can better see the land. They would not have to replant those trees.
Replanting requirements — the most controversial part of the proposed rules — would kick in if a site has been cleared but then nothing happens. After two to five years, depending on circumstances, owners would have three choices: plant at least 36 shade trees per acre, plant tree seedlings in every 10-by-10-foot area or pay the city $150 for each tree they don’t plant.
They could do a combination of the three options.
Miller said the payment-in-lieu option, which the city also would offer to developers who don’t want to plant all the trees needed to meet the 30-percent canopy requirement, helped sell him on the draft rules.
If a parcel requires 30 trees but an owner only wants to plant 23, the owner can pay $1,050 and avoid planting the seven unwanted trees. The city would use the money to plant seven trees elsewhere in Salisbury.
“They’ve got payment-in-lieu as a fail-safe if they can’t get all the points they need,” Miller said.
Once a developer builds streets or installs water and sewer on cleared land, the replanting requirements are less stringent. If a project dies but infrastructure is in place, the owner must plant only the trees required to line the streets after two to five years.
“We don’t want to do anything to harm or stifle growth or development,” Mitchell said. “… But it’s important to protect the tree canopy.”
Developer John Leatherman, however, still opposes the proposed rules.
While he agrees with the 30 percent overall canopy requirement and replanting trees along the street, Leatherman said replanting trees throughout cleared, commercial property will hurt development.
“We need jobs. Therefore, we need speculative land,” he said.
Leatherman said the replanting requirement would make it “unacceptable for the property owner to cut the trees on their own land that is zoned commercial and market the property for development.”
He also said the city should treat commercial and residential developments differently.
“Residential is where the problem exists. That is also where more trees are needed,” he said. “Rowan-Salisbury needs commercial property that is ready to use. We need more and better paying jobs.”
Leatherman clear cut about nine acres of commercial property on Jake Alexander Boulevard several years ago, then development stalled. Debris left on the site caused controversy and helped prompt the proposed clear-cutting regulations.
All currently cleared property, like Leatherman’s Dodd Brown site, and property already under development would be grandfathered and not affected by the new tree rules. If the rules had been in place when Leatherman cleared his land, he still would have been able to cut and sell the trees but would have had to clean up the site, Mitchell said.
Leatherman points to a stalled residential development called Greystone Village on West Innes Street as a site that should have to be replanted.
But the new rules would not have required replanting there either, Mitchell said.
Rodney Queen clear cut Greystone several years ago, before the development stalled. Queen also happens to be the chairman of the city’s Tree Board and one of the strongest advocates for the new rules.
Leatherman said he finds it ironic that Queen clear cut his land and did not replant but now wants to require others to replant.
But Queen said Greystone, which he no longer owns, would have mostly complied with the proposed tree ordinance and serves as a good example of what developers should do. He said he and partner Belle Realty Development clear cut but also removed stumps, cleaned up the site and constructed roads and water-sewer lines, as well as landscaping.
“What we did at Greystone is what we want to see,” Queen said.
Had Greystone broken ground with new tree rules in place, the replanting requirement would not have kicked in because the development is still active, although there are only about 20 townhouses on the 20-acre site.
Queen said the draft tree ordinance upgrades the city’s landscape standards.
“We need to provide tree preservation so we can start reversing (air pollution),” he said. “It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”
The city plans to present the proposed tree rules to the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce to get more feedback. Chamber President Elaine Spalding said she welcomes the chance for the business community to vet the ordinance before City Council votes.
The chamber’s Government Affairs Committee will study the tree proposal and make a recommendation to the full board, which could decide to support or lobby against the ordinance, Spalding said.
“Our concern is we want a healthy business climate for the community going forward,” she said. “Our board is very interested in getting more engaged in community issues.”
To come up with the 30 percent canopy requirement, Mitchell said city staff studied dozens of new developments and counted the trees.
“We found that most developments were coming in with a canopy between 25 and 35 percent, so we literally went down middle and said 30 percent was a fair number to be applying as baseline,” he said.
The canopy is required only when the city also requires a development to have a landscape plan. All trees, not just newly planted ones, count toward the 30 percent.
Mayor Paul Woodson said he was concerned that developers may abandon plans to build in Salisbury because the number of required trees could force them to construct a smaller building.
Mitchell said city staff studied that possibility and ruled it out.
“We have not found a single situation where a building would have to be reduced in square footage,” he said.
Many new developments including Aldi and Wallace Commons — where a new Belk and other stores are being built — already meet or exceed the proposed tree ordinance, Mitchell recently told City Council.
“What I’m hearing today makes me feel a little bit better,” Woodson said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.