Traverse City News and Events

City Tree Policy Back In the Spotlight

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 20, 2019

A proposed Traverse City ordinance aimed at protecting trees from development is back in the spotlight, returning to city planning commissioners tonight (Tuesday) for discussion after several months of revisions by staff and an ad hoc committee of commissioners.

An increasing number of developments in Traverse City – many involving significant tree removal, such as The Moorings on M-72 – combined with limited city rules regulating tree clearing, has led to a push for a more robust ordinance that would protect the city’s tree canopy. The policy aims in particular to preserve large, healthy, native trees, as well as those next to bodies of water, which provide habitat for wildlife and prevent shoreline erosion. The overall goal of the policy is to ensure that trees lost to construction are somehow replaced elsewhere, preventing overall “reductions in the city’s urban forest,” according to the draft policy.

Under the most recent draft, any new building or building expansion requiring a building permit and having a value of $20,000 or more would be subject to the new tree ordinance. Such properties would be required to meet a “minimum tree canopy” after construction, which would be calculated by the lot size and number of trees on the property. In some dense urban areas, like parts of downtown, the canopy cover requirement is only 10 percent; in other districts, such as multi-family neighborhoods around Boardman Lake, it’s as high as 50 percent.

One and two-family residences are excluded from the tree canopy requirement; other properties only have to meet the rules if they undergo new construction or expansion. If a property owner somehow can’t meet the tree canopy requirement, he or she can instead donate to a Traverse City tree fund to support plantings elsewhere in the city. For each $300 donated, the owner would receive 500 square feet of canopy credit. “We wanted to achieve more tree canopy, that was one of the key things,” City Planning Director Russ Soyring says of the new requirement – one of several key differences between the new draft ordinance and an initial version introduced last fall.

Under the new draft, owners must also obtain land clearing permits if they plan to remove over 4,000 square feet of woody vegetation, 10-plus trees more than six inches in diameter at breast height, or two trees more than 24 inches in diameter at breast height. Removal of 20,000 or more square feet of woody vegetation from any property would automatically trigger a required site plan review before the city planning commission. New requirements for landscaping plans state that at least 50 percent of tree plantings must be species native to Michigan, and that the plan must contain no more than 33 percent of any single tree genus. Trees within water setbacks are required to be preserved, unless they are invasive, in which case they can be cut down to the stump and roots and a replacement tree planted.

The first draft of the ordinance received pushback from business and development groups, who said the rules were too punitive and focused more on pushing restrictions than incentives. Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce Director of Government Relations Kent Woods says the updated version is “simpler and more reflective of the numerous priorities and challenges this city faces.” Still, in a memo to planning commissioners, he outlined several outstanding concerns, including the required planning commission site plan review for projects clearing 20,000 square feet of land or more. “With an unelected body having such discretion over legitimate actions on private property, we believe it is necessary to clearly articulate the scope and parameters of the commission’s review,” he wrote.

Wood also questioned whether city staff had enough time and resources to administer the new ordinance – calling it “a recipe for burnout and failure” – and criticized what he said was the overly onerous nature of the policy. “Requiring a minimum canopy, a number of trees per site, requirements to maintain certain trees, and permits for other cuttings could all individually have a policy justification,” he said. “However, requiring them all together seems like regulatory overkill and not respectful to individual private property owners.”

Several other organizations wrote to the planning commission asking to be exempted from the ordinance or included under revised terms. Northwestern Michigan College President Tim Nelson questioned a 40 percent canopy requirement for the Great Lakes Campus and 30 percent canopy requirement for the Aero Park Campus, saying it was “not realistic given the existing makeup and character of these locations.” Affirming the college’s commitment to a “sustainable tree vision for this community,” Nelson asked to have the policy instead consider NMC’s total tree canopy based on all parcels combined.

Utility companies DTE Energy and Traverse City Light & Power vocalized concerns about their ability to engage in tree-cutting as necessary for utility projects. They also asked for better language around a provision requiring property owners to screen utility equipment from view when possible with landscaping. Both utilities stated that clear pathways and access must be maintained around equipment in order for workers to reach them. Cherry Capital Airport also weighed in on the draft ordinance, noting that legal precedent has determined “airports are exempt from local zoning regulations as applied to aeronautical uses of an airport." The airport requested that it be made clear in the new ordinance that most tree removal rules “generally would not apply to the airport,” because of its mandate to comply with Federal Aviation Administration guidelines and clear trees for safety reasons.

Other organizations wrote to express support for the new ordinance. While suggesting language tweaks in some areas, Invasive Species Network Coordinator Katie Grzesiak of the Grand Traverse Conservation District praised the “great work” of the ad hoc committee, particularly in the landscaping plan and water setback requirements. The Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which had board members attend every meeting of the ad hoc committee, said its organization has “advocated for years” for a tree ordinance. “We urge you to endorse it,” wrote co-chair Ann Rogers. “We also urge you to hire the necessary (forester) specialist, and do the massive education needed to inform our citizens of the critical importance of trees. Our health, and the health of the environment, including the bay and the Boardman-Ottaway River, depend on the needed protection.”

Soyring says feedback from all of the above groups can be used to further tweak the ordinance draft before a final version comes forward for a vote. “What I want to find out from the planning commission and public (tonight) is if there are really big changes that need to be made to the ordinance, or just fine-tuning,” he says. If the latter, Soyring says city staff can make final changes and get the ordinance before planning commissioners for a vote at their September 4 meeting.

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