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Known for its trees, Greenville may copy Atlanta to protect a shrinking canopy

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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

By next year, the city of Greenville might have lost close to half the tree cover it had two decades ago when growth — which shows no sign of stopping — first began to soar.

Now, new regulations on the table could make the removal of trees for development exponentially more costly as the city looks to Atlanta for guidance.

“We’re settling on what we call the 'Atlanta gold standard,'” said Edward Kinney, the city’s senior landscape architect leading the formulation of a new tree ordinance city leaders say has become a top priority.

The Atlanta model rests on a simple premise: For every significant tree lost, another must take its place, which can be in the form of planting a new tree or paying the government to plant it for you elsewhere.

The concept, aimed chiefly at preventing clear-cutting, could prove costly for developers used to operating under tree regulations enacted six years ago.

Theoretically, the cost to account for the removal of trees on a one-acre lot could be ten times what it is now, Kinney told City Council this week in preparation for a public survey to fine tune the regulations that will be considered in depth this fall.

For instance, a one-acre lot with a dozen trees would cost $1,800 for a developer to cut under current regulations. A tree 28 inches in diameter would need to be replaced with two 4-inch trees or a fee of $600 in its place. Removal of a 32-inch tree would require either four 4-inch trees to account for the loss or $1,200 in lieu of replacement.

Under the proposed new regulations, the same removal of trees on that one-acre lot would cost $18,300.

That’s because the new rules would separate out more tree sizes and more fees for each, including protection for trees as small as 6 inches in diameter that would require replacement or $450. Right now, trees aren’t protected unless they are 20 inches in diameter or more.

The idea is to encourage development that is more creative in protecting tree canopy.

The push first came in February when the council discussed the pressing need to preserve trees in the city with tighter regulations.

Kinney's presentation to the council showed that, in 2001, the city had 41 percent of its area 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.

Atlanta has been a poster child of how unchecked growth can create a scattershot pattern that leads to gridlocked traffic, abandonment of the inner city and loss of the natural environment.

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However, Atlanta has enacted some of the toughest tree ordinances in the Southeast to make up for its transgressions.

Greenville leaders looked to Atlanta but weren't sure of the support such a restrictive set of rules would receive.

Over the course of the summer, the city sought feedback from residents, developers and special interest groups. What the city found, except for requests by developers for less-restrictive laws, was strong support for restrictions that go beyond what was originally proposed.

In a series of public meetings, more than half of those who participated wanted replacement costs to be higher.

Where the city set out to exclude single-family development from new tree regulations, more than half surveyed this summer said they wanted all development to be subject. Likewise, the majority of those surveyed said they didn't want the city to exempt affordable-housing projects from the new rules.

City leaders were emboldened by the results.

“I see tree canopy and affordable housing as very different species — very high priorities for us right now, but I can’t get comfortable trading one for the other,” City Councilwoman Dorothy Dowe said.

Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming said choosing one over the other hurts both. Traditionally, poor communities have had to trade cut-rate housing for a lack of trees and landscaping, worsening the perception of the places they live. 

“One of the reasons that communities have slum and blight is because they don't have landscaping ordinances," Flemming said. "They do not have planting of trees in the old-fashioned ghetto.”

As part of the effort, the city is trying to identify places where trees can be planted. Dowe said that would lead to less than 7 percent improvement in tree canopy, which means new regulations must be shared by all.

The formula for how costs are measured can be adjusted, Kinney said, to account for various sized trees and whether they are part of single-family or multi-family projects.

In two weeks, the public will be asked to weigh in again in the form of an online survey that asks three simple questions. Should single family be included? Should affordable housing be exempt? Should fees be higher, lower or the same as what's proposed thus far?

The survey will last for two weeks, between Sept. 29 and Oct. 13.

The city intends to have a proposed ordinance ready for the planning commission to vote on in November. City Council would have final say.

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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