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Charlotte’s ‘tree save’ protections don’t save enough trees from the ax, advocates say

UNC ecologist Doug Shoemaker stands in an area near a new Amazon distribution center that was to be replanted with trees.
Steve Harrison
UNC ecologist Doug Shoemaker stands in an area near a new Amazon distribution center that was to be replanted with trees.

In 2019, Amazon chopped down almost every tree on a 95-acre site to build a distribution center off Wilkinson Boulevard, near Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Only two small patches of forest were left, sandwiched near Interstates 85 and 485.
Charlotte’s tree-save ordinance requires developers preserve 15% of the trees on a commercial development site, but the city OK’d the project. One of the conditions: Amazon would replant about eight acres with new trees.

But UNC Charlotte ecologist Doug Shoemaker, who has studied Charlotte’s tree canopy extensively, said he’s not impressed with how the site looks five years later.

“The planting is really sparse,” he said. “If this is the prescription from the city, then there’s no opportunity to achieve any sort of canopy closure in the future. It’s just too little.”

The scrubby trees dotting the site will grow taller, of course. But Shoemaker says that in 30 years it will likely look like a park — not a forest.

“It’s not even coming close,” he said. “It’s one-third of what we would see naturally. On paper it sort of works. But to achieve any canopy closure that’s meaningful is decades out, decades away.”

Amazon’s tree-planting plan was approved by the city of Charlotte. And a site visit shows the company planted the trees at the density it was supposed to, which was about 36 trees per acre.

The company also paid some money into a tree mitigation fund, used to buy and preserve trees elsewhere.

The company said in a statement to WFAE that it’s “proud of the partnerships we’ve made and the work we’ve done to support the preservation of trees at our facilities across the city.”

But the site is still one of many places throughout Mecklenburg County where the city’s ambitious tree-save goals can fall short.

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Studies show Charlotte’s tree canopy coverage has declined slightly to around 47%, and that the city likely won’t be able to meet its goal of 50% coverage in 25 years.

The biggest reason for the loss, of course, is that people keep moving to Mecklenburg County. Forests are being cut down for new housing developments and commercial sites.

But there are other reasons as well.

Sometimes the city’s own rules may not require enough trees to be replanted to replace a dense, mature grove, as could be the case with Amazon.

In other cases, developers simply don’t follow through with how many trees they are supposed to replant.

Tim Porter, who has been the city’s top arborist since 2020, said that’s a common problem.

“What we have found — and this is very general research — over 65% of sites are missing at least one tree,” Porter said. “And that’s concerning. Very concerning.”

WFAE found such sites throughout the city.

For instance, an empty piece of land off Arrowood Road was almost entirely clear-cut, despite a city requirement to save some trees.

On the other side of the city, there is a warehouse off Tuckaseegee Road near I-85 that was approved on the condition of replanting. But the developer only replanted a fraction of the trees required, according to a recent WFAE site visit.

At-large Charlotte City Council member Dimple Ajmera said residents often complain that developers have clear-cut trees for new neighborhoods or commercial developments.

In many instances, they have saved a slice of trees, which may not be visible from the road.

Ajmera said the city needs more resources to make sure developers are following the rules.

“There is work to be done, such as ensuring there are audits being done after the development has completed to ensure developers have met what they have committed to,” she said.

Porter now has a two-person tree protection team that does spot-checks on sites that have already been developed. He plans to hire two more.

“No (developer) is calling after they are done saying, did I do it right?” Porter said. “They’re moving on. So we’re going back to make sure the trees are there.”

To meet the 15% tree-save requirement, developers can keep existing trees. That usually results in strips of trees that provide a buffer between the road and the development.

They can also pay a fee instead of saving any trees. The city uses that money to buy land and protect trees in other parts of the county.

And they can replant.

Porter says the replanting standard of 36 trees per acre may need to be revisited. He said the current standard is “a head start for Mother Nature, for natural forest succession to occur.”

In theory, new tree seedlings can also pop up next to the planted trees.

But at the Amazon site, he’s worried the tree replanting areas aren’t being given a chance to become anything like a real forest, where there can be 100 trees per acre. He’s concerned the property manager is mowing the replant area.

Shoemaker said losing tree canopy means “every year the city will get hotter and get poorer air quality. And that’s before we even think about climate change. Working with replant rules like this puts us behind the ball.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.