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Digging into Charlotte's Unified Development Ordinance: Protecting the city’s tree canopy

Charlotte aerial shot.
City of Charlotte
Aerial view of Charlotte's tree canopy.

Charlotte’s Unified Development Ordinance is the part of the city's 2040 plan that puts new regulations in place to guide future growth.

WFAE went through the 608-page document and found a couple of things that caught our eye that we wanted to know more about. One of them is proposed rules around protecting the city’s trees.

Charlotte is considering new rules that would make it harder for homeowners to cut down trees. Residents who want to cut down a large, healthy oak in their yard might have to pay the city $1,000 and plant a new tree.

Doug Shoemaker has studied and written about Charlotte's tree canopy for UNC Charlotte. He says the city’s canopy is shrinking.

Doug Shoemaker: Well, from a high in 2012 of about 49%, we've lost roughly 10,000 acres, or about three football fields a day to get where we're at now, at about 44% tree canopy cover, so massive losses.

Nick de la Canal: Where are the tree losses occurring?

Shoemaker: Two-thirds of the loss occurs in residential areas. And of those losses, they fall into two categories: the larger is losses in established neighborhoods in yards. They age out, storm damage or people just choose to have them removed. (Then) 40% of the loss is in new development where they'll often go and clear a piece of land and put in all new homes or apartments.

de la Canal: So the city is proposing new rules that would protect heritage trees on private property. These are large, native trees that are otherwise healthy. And if a homeowner wants to cut one down they would have to pay first $150 to apply for a permit and then $1,000 for the permit. And they have to plant a new tree somewhere on the property. That's a lot of money.

Shoemaker: It is, but these large trees deliver significant benefits to the community. And those things range from slowing rainwater going into stormwater systems and cleaning particulate matter out of the air. But the biggest category are what they call “structural ecosystem services” and these are the kinds of things that large trees do for a neighborhood. They make it shadier and cooler, they increase property values, they have been shown to reduce crime. And all the most desirable neighborhoods in our city are characterized by big trees and lots of them.

de la Canal: And I'll note that homeowners would not have to pay that $1,000 fee if a tree is dead, diseased or in danger of falling. But do you think that homeowners should be given more latitude if they want to say build a small house in their backyard for the in-laws or they're just scared the tree could fall?

Shoemaker: Tree permitting is, frankly, common in urban areas of the United States. And while down here in the southeast, we're not that used to having to follow a bunch of rules when it comes to our own property.,he rules that have been set forth are fairly flexible but the goal is always the same. Without those trees, the place is definitely going to be hotter and we're going to get into a feedback loop where we're going to have to air condition more, which creates more greenhouse gasses and it makes our area hotter.

de la Canal: And I believe you can reduce the fee to $500 if you plant several trees in place of the one you cut down. So these new rules aren't just limited to homeowners. Developers who are building new single-family neighborhoods would also save at least 15% of the land for trees and nature, which is up from 10% right now. Do you think that that would make a difference?

Shoemaker: It's a step in the right direction but it's likely not enough. We can look to places like San Antonio, Texas, where they've recently installed a new tree ordinance that asks developers to retain 35% of their tree canopy cover. That is a sort of number that might actually really make a change now and throughout our lifetimes.

de la Canal: So as Charlotte grows, and more development moves in, what do you think is the most important thing the city can do?

Shoemaker: I think the city is doing the right thing. Knowing what's coming down the pike in terms of climate change, I hope the city is successful in making these changes stick. And I would even say that there's a case that the ordinances should be stronger.

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Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal