Francis E. "Jack" Putz: We're losing our tree cover

Published: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 4:53 p.m.

As Chair of Gainesville's Tree Advisory Board, it has been my privilege to serve with four other experienced urban foresters as advisers to the City Commission on policies that promote and preserve Gainesville's tree canopy.

Like many other concerned citizens, we are worried about losses of tree cover over our community.

These losses were recently quantified by researchers from the UF School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

In 1990 and again in 2000, Gainesville's City Commission affirmed the objective of maintaining the tree canopy at the level measured in 1994; 60 percent coverage. Sadly, the recent research identified Gainesville's 2005 canopy coverage at only 51 percent.

This rapid loss of nearly 10 percent of our tree cover calls into question the effectiveness of the ordinances designed to protect this vital community resource. Although most trees in the urban forest are on private property, their benefits accrue to society at-large in terms of carbon sequestered, oxygen generated, pollution abated, noise buffered, stormwater mitigated, wildlife enhanced, etc.

In the give-and-take of modern life, owners of properties with trees benefit from the social networks and infrastructures provided by the community that render their lands desirable as sites for new homes and businesses.

As the financial value of land increases, more developers (many from outside Gainesville and lacking the ethic of preserving trees) are proposing projects with building footprints that push the limits of Gainesville's Land Development Code.

They see saving the magnificent live oaks, magnolias, and hickories that have been the hallmark of our urban forest as income losses rather than as opportunities to create the congenial urban environment we advertise as a place "where culture meets nature."

Of particular concern is the loss of large and irreplaceable of hardy native species. "Heritage Trees" are defined and explicitly protected in Gainesville's Land Development Code, but the protection is falling short of what is required.

A recent proposal considered by another citizen advisory panel, the Development Review Board, illustrates the problem.

On the site of the proposed development was a 58-inch diameter live oak in excellent condition, the kind of Heritage Tree that should have been seen as a great enhancement to the proposed shopping venue. City staff requested adjustment of one of the proposed buildings by 25 feet to save the tree.

The developer refused to comply so the DRB refused to recommend the City Commission approve the project.

In response, the developer appealed the DRB decision to the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which found for him, because Gainesville's Land Development Code allows removing Heritage trees if replacement trees are planted on a diameter-inch-for-inch basis "on-site, off-site, or given to the City."

The required mitigation for a 58-inch live oak is 29 trees of 2-inch trunk caliper, which can be purchased in 15-gallon containers at $50 each for a total of $1,450. The late Noel Lake, Gainesville's renowned landscape architect and long-time member of the Tree Advisory Board, applied the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers methodology to the 58-inch tree and calculated its value to be $40,645!

Because of the DCA's decision, disapproving the project would have been seen as a "taking" of the developer's property insofar as he was willing to comply with the inch-for-inch replacement rule.

The City Commission relies on the Tree Advisory Board to investigate whether code provisions, like the inch-for-inch rule, are adequate to keep Gainesville in compliance with its comprehensive plan goals to: "Improve urban spaces through preservation and enhancement of the urban forest" and "Maintain the City's commitment to preservation of the urban forest and street trees as a defining feature of our community."

The Board has now completed a comprehensive review of the code and will soon present recommendations for changes that, if accepted and enforced, will serve to maintain our tree canopy.

In addition to upgrading the protections for Heritage Trees throughout the planning and construction processes, we are proposing changes to reduce Gainesville's vulnerability to future Southern Pine Beetle outbreaks, to encourage preserving and replanting with strong native tree species, and to require practices and design principles that reduce infrastructural incompatibility.

As it stands, a tree that damages a building or road does not stand for long.

For anyone interested in learning more about the proposed Code Changes, the Tree Advisory Board will present a summary to the community at the Civic Design Center in the Chamber of Commerce Building on Jan. 31 at 4 p.m. We are certain that the proposed changes, if enacted, will help stem the rapid loss of our tree canopy.

This seems an appropriate time to evaluate the health of our urban forest and to commit to taking steps towards assuring a future in which our city has a healthy, sheltering tree canopy.

Francis E. "Jack" Putz is chair of Gainesville's Tree Advisory Board

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