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Arbor ordinance.

Arbor Ordinance Little Rock Officials Intend To Help Developers See The Forest And The Trees

In mid-February, bulldozers finished toppling most of what had been an 18-acre stand of timber in west Little Rock. The hardwood and pine were cleared away to make room for a new Kroger shopping center along Arkansas Hwy. 10 east of Pinnacle Mountain Road.

During the site review process, the landowners and developers, Joe Whisenhunt Jr. and his father, had agreed to preserve a clump of trees along the highway until that portion of the property was developed at a later date.

The idea was to leave some greenery intact while the earth-movers leveled the construction site and work crews built the retail center. Unfortunately, that information wasn't relayed down to the fellows behind the dozer blades, employees of Kelton Brown Jr.

As a result, even the trees marked with bright orange surveyor's tape were taken down. Except for two trees, the woods have been pushed back from the highway to the northern boundary of the property.

"There was a misunderstanding," says Jim Lawson, city planning director. "It was a communication breakdown, and we're not that upset about what happened or mad at the developers."

"We have to make up for this mistake and are willing to go in and landscape and berm the whole front area along Hwy. 10," reports Whisenhunt Jr. City officials are waiting to review Whisenhunt's plans to mitigate the change in scenery.

The denuded landscape has nudged city officials toward adopting a tree ordinance designed to protect the natural beauty of undeveloped land. The main goal is to safeguard mature trees when possible and encourage developers to incorporate existing greenery into their site plans.

Encouragement will likely take the form of stiff monetary penalties for non-compliance, expensive remediation work and perhaps even criminal charges.

The criteria for such an ordinance is now only in the talking stages, but the proposal should begin its trek through bureaucratic channels during the next few weeks. In fact, the issue might be taken before the planning commission this month.

Although the trees in question would've been removed sometime in the future, the incident pointed out a need for specific guidelines to prevent errors like this from occurring and raised a larger question as well: Why can't more be done to save existing trees, particularly the older ones?

"It shows a thinking that has sunk in that when you develop a piece of property that you have to clear off all the trees before building," Lawson remarks. "I want to raise our conscience level that we have a problem here. This is something we need to learn from and not let happen again."

Preservation Perspectives

New trees will be replanted at the Candlewood development, but even with modern transplanting equipment, it's not possible to replace the oldest ones with comparable trees. The root systems are too extensive and well-established to survive the stress of relocation.

With transplanting costs running about $90 per diameter inch, it's not cheap either. Trees as large as 12 inches in diameter can be moved, and the cost for those run upwards of $2,000.

As far as preserving existing trees goes, it's often difficult to complete grading work and drainage design. Trees often don't survive unless unusual measures are taken and those measure are sometimes prohibitively expensive from the developer's perspective.

"It comes down to the super simplistic viewpoint that it's easier and cheaper to clear the site than to work around some of the natural attributes," says Robert Brown, vp and landscape architect with Development Consultants in Little Rock.

"Minimum maintenance and maximum visibility. When you have that kind of thinking, that doesn't mean a whole lot for saving trees. It's rare to see an intense office or retail center in Little Rock that tries to save many of the existing trees."

Koger Properties is one of the best examples of a local development where special attention was given to tree preservation. Developers of the proposed Summit Shopping Center in west Little Rock went so far as to take an inventory of all trees within the 25-foot buffer zone, cataloging the variety, size and location of each specimen.

Whisenhunt is supportive of the city adopting standards to address concerns, but he hopes the resulting legislation doesn't create an unwieldy environment for developers.

"It's good they want to have an ordinance on this because they don't know if the developer is going to replace the trees," he says. "I think it's a good idea because it'll make developers more careful, but from a developer's standpoint, the city can be irrational where it regards retaining natural elements on a commercial site.

"The city has a really hard job of promoting development and on the other hand trying to preserve things for the naturalists. They're trying to work both ends against the middle, and that's a tough job."

One City's Strategy

The Memphis suburb of Germantown, Tenn., has perhaps the toughest development criteria and review process of any nearby city. Officials require 35 percent of a commercial site to remain undisturbed and that for every 10-15 parking slots there must be a landscaped island with at least one tree.

Developers must enter into a contractual agreement, backed by a surety bond, to further guarantee they perform to city specifications. "We have the authority to call the bond to make sure that they live up to it," states James Lewellen, assistant to the Germantown director of development. "We really don't have that much trouble with compliance, and I can't think of everyone we've ever had to take to court."

If a developer wants to cut down a large tree on a project that's up and running, he must replace it with two new ones measuring 4-6 inches in diameter. As an added incentive, the city can set a deadline for a developer to comply and levy a $50 fine for each day the situation is not resolved. The rule may sound heavyhanded to some, but there is some flexibility.

"It's in the best interest of the city to protect mature trees in commercial developments," says Lewellen. "We go to great lengths to save any trees that are 10 inches or above in diameter.

"It's pretty tough to come up with a tree ordinance because even the tree experts disagree on what you need to do to save a tree."

Little Rock city officials will be trying to do just that in the coming weeks. Those efforts could have long-term effects on commercial development that will shape the city's appearance for years to come.

"At some point, we will need to be punitive," Lawson remarks. "The fine is to get people's attention. We don't want the money. The point is we don't want to destroy mature trees. We're not trying to increase development costs or discourage development. We are trying to encourage quality."

The trade-off will involve greenbacks for greenery. Determining an acceptable exchange rate should provide some lively debate.

PHOTO : Tree Hugger: Jim Lawson, director of city planning in Little Rock, believes more should be done to save mature trees from the dozer blade of development. He will be spearheading efforts to create new standards for tree preservation in the coming weeks.
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Title Annotation:Little Rock, Arkansas adopting ordinance protecting mature trees
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 9, 1990
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