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Greenville's quest to save its shrinking canopy will raise the cost of cutting trees

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Greenville's tree canopy

Greenville City Council has given initial approval to regulations that aim to stem the loss of tree canopy. Matt Crum/Staff

If you've ever seen what looks like a toothpick growing out of a road median or the stunning loss of a stand of century-old oaks to make way for three new houses, you should know that things are poised to change in the city of Greenville.

Preventing the loss of its namesake color to development has previously been an abstract exercise. Now, tree preservation is poised to become law — and developers won't be the only ones paying for it.

Two years after the city began its effort to enforce strict tree protections, City Council has cleared the largest hurdle by giving initial approval to sweeping tree ordinance changes ahead of an upcoming final vote.

One of the main sticking points throughout the process has been whether to make owners of single-family homes pay a fee if significant trees are cut from their property. The final verdict is that they will, with exceptions.

The new regulations would charge owners $50 per caliper inch — a measurement specifically to determine diameter at a tree's maturity — for every "heritage tree" cut down. A heritage tree is considered to be between 20 inches and 40 inches in diameter depending on where it is located on a property.

Current owners of single-family homes will be exempt from the heritage tree requirement. The requirement kicks in for any property changing ownership after June 30. Single-family homeowners won't be responsible for any trees fewer than 20 inches in diameter no matter when the property is bought.

There is no requirement if a tree needs to be removed because it is diseased, dead or is a danger. The cost per acre is capped at $25,000.

The $50 figure is derived from the "national tree benefit calculator," which accounts for the environmental impact of trees along with increases in property value and typical cost to replace a tree, said Edward Kinney, the city's senior landscape architect who led the tree preservation effort.

In 2001, 41 percent of the city was covered with tree canopy. By 2011, that percentage was 36 percent, a loss of 33.1 million square feet. In 2021, the city expects as little as 25 percent cover — a 59.6 million-square-foot loss in the past two decades.

The city's tree ordinance follows a simple principle following what is considered the "gold standard" in protection, similar to what was adopted by Atlanta: For every tree cut down, another takes its place. The idea is to stem the tide of canopy loss by preventing massive clear-cutting in new developments and making smaller gains here and there.

The ordinance was put together over the course of two years with broad input from neighborhoods, tree experts and developers.

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In most developments, any tree thicker than 6 inches in diameter would need to be replaced at a 1:1 ratio. The regulations require that one tree be planted for every 2,000 square feet of development. The current requirement is for every 3,000 square feet. If trees can't be saved, the fee in lieu of preservation would go into a tree fund to plant trees elsewhere.

The ordinance also tightens restrictions on what trees and shrubs are planted in roadway medians and parking lots. For instance, trees that provide no shade will no longer be permitted to be planted in parking lots to avoid thin, stick-like trees being engulfed by an expanse of asphalt.

The new rules also remove a list of suggested trees in favor of a list of trees that aren't allowed in an effort to promote diversity, Kinney said.

The development of new multifamily projects will now require landscape screening like that already required of commercial developments.

Built into the initiative is a commitment to review the ordinance and its effectiveness every two years.

City Councilman John DeWorken said one element he wants reviewed is how the ordinance impacts lower-income families. If a family making $50,000 per year wants to cut down trees in the backyard to allow a place for kids to throw a ball, DeWorken said, the ordinance shouldn't create an undue burden lest it be essentially a "regressive tax."

“I just want us to keep in mind as we go down the road on this to keep an eye on this," DeWorken said.

The city considered allowing an exemption to the tree replacement regulations for affordable housing projects in an effort to limit cost. However, council members discouraged the move, citing the need not to sacrifice one valuable cause for another.

Another issue is how money from the fee-in-lieu-of fund will be used. The city already has funds devoted to tree maintenance.

Councilwoman Dorothy Dowe said the new tree fund money should go directly to preserving and planting new trees as part of the initiative.

"I would hate to see any of this fund being used for things we already do now," Dowe said.

The council didn't include any formal requirements on use of the fund, in part because the city won't know how much money will be in the fund until the program is implemented.

Follow Eric on Twitter at @cericconnor.

Reporter/Local Editor

Eric is a reporter and local editor for The Post and Courier in Greenville. Previously with The Greenville News, he's covered the Upstate for two decades and served as a USA TODAY correspondent. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina.

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