Photo by Marc Mullinax
By Emma Castleberry
In September, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to pass a Tree Canopy Protection Ordinance that will encourage property owners and developers to avoid cutting down trees. “Developers can either save trees, replace removed trees with new trees or pay a fee for lost canopy,” says Dawn Chávez, executive director of Asheville GreenWorks. “The ordinance amendment is structured to incentivize keeping trees, with payment in lieu as a last resort. Any fees collected have to be used for urban forestry improvements in the same Resource Management District from which trees were removed.”
In less than 10 years, Asheville has lost about 900 acres of trees—an area larger than New York City’s Central Park. The loss of these trees contributes to a rise in peak summer temperatures, as evidenced by a NASA heat island study completed in Asheville last year. Furthermore, tree loss puts the city more at risk of regular and destructive flooding. “Like people, trees have a lifespan,” says Stephen Hendricks, chair of the Asheville Urban Forestry Commission. “It takes many years to replace mature trees. So, it’s important to save as many mature trees as possible because they absorb huge amounts of stormwater, sequester carbon from the atmosphere and lower the ambient temperature in cities by ten degrees or more on peak summer days.”
The tree canopy can even be seen as directly related to Asheville’s status as a desirable tourist destination. “The magical things that draw people here are the temperate climate with cool summer evenings, the magnificent scenery and the diverse Southern Appalachian forest,” says Hendricks. “Those are all in danger of significant damage as we lose our tree canopy.”
Additional requirements of the ordinance include hiring a cerified arborist to conduct a survey of existing trees during the design phase. Some small developers voiced concern that this might cause financial hardship that would then be passed on to their clients. “The City is aware of concerns about how the new requirements could impact development, especially in regard to affordable housing developments,” says Chris Collins, site planning and development division manager for the City of Asheville. “The ordinance allows for a great deal of flexibility in how a developer complies and is designed to be predictable and easy to use. While the added requirements may sometimes come at a small cost to a developer, those costs should not be prohibitive.”
Ultimately, the council decided that the ordinance would be overwhelmingly beneficial to the health of the city. “We learned from successful examples in the Southeast and tried to develop an equitable, flexible and fair system to curtail the loss of tree canopy,” says Hendricks. “This is a win-win for Asheville as a whole, saving most tax payers money while making us more climate resilient, and the city cooler and greener in general.”
For more information about the ordinance, visit AshevilleNC.gov.
This article was published in the October 2020 issue of The Laurel of Asheville.