As tree losses mount, Charlotte considers stricter rules to protect canopy coverage

·4 min read

Want to remove a tree in Charlotte because you are afraid of it falling on your house? How about if you’re building a granny flat for your aging parents or putting up a new house on a lot and need to remove some trees?

It’s actions like those that have long gone unregulated in the city. And it’s been in areas zoned for single family, not industrial and multifamily, where Charlotte has seen its greatest losses of tree canopy coverage in the past decade, according to city leaders.

Now, that could change.

The first draft of the 608-page Unified Development Ordinance, the regulatory tools behind Charlotte’s development and growth, proposes new language to more strictly protect the city’s trees. Among other steps, the UDO requires anyone who wants to remove a heritage tree measuring at least 30 inches in diameter to get a permit to do so.

Heritage trees are defined in the UDO as any tree native to North Carolina, per a U.S. Department of Agriculture database. Trees that are diseased, damaged, like from a storm, or pose a risk to the public, wouldn’t require a permit to be removed, said Tim Porter, Charlotte’s chief urban forester.

He liked the tree proposal in the UDO. “Folks in Charlotte really love large trees but also our canopy has been declining so much that it’s a really great concept to slow that decline,” Porter said.

Factors of tree loss

In 2012, trees covered 49% of Charlotte. By 2018, that percentage dropped to 45%.

Of that decline, the majority, or 65%, occurred in single-family areas, then deputy planning director Alyson Craig said in 2020. Craig has been named interim planning director and is overseeing the UDO through the draft process.

The city has regulated tree removal if a property owner was subdividing their land. All other homeowner decisions weren’t regulated, Craig said.

Other factors have contributed to tree loss.

The splintered wood of a cut tree stands along the roadway of Shade Valley Road. Development has led to large losses in Charlotte’s tree canopy over the past decade. But significant losses have also occurred in single-family neighborhoods.
The splintered wood of a cut tree stands along the roadway of Shade Valley Road. Development has led to large losses in Charlotte’s tree canopy over the past decade. But significant losses have also occurred in single-family neighborhoods.

Aging trees are one example. Development has also contributed to large losses. The UDO, which is set for a council vote this summer, increases the amount of trees developers have to save when building single-family subdivisions from 10% to 15%.

Porter and Craig are encouraging feedback from the community about what they’d like to see out of the tree protection ordinance.

Charlotte tree loss leads to regulation option

In 2020, Charlotte embarked on its Tree Action Canopy Plan. It was a way to analyze the tree canopy to track impacts of development and plan for policies to better protect the trees.

What was most surprising, Porter said, was to find that the biggest canopy loss was not from clearcutting in large subdivisions. It was incremental loss in residential areas that were already established, combined with aging, mature trees planted at the same time.

Climate change and storm damage and infill led to larger canopy losses.

Several years ago, the city was following a goal to get to 50% coverage by 2050. But that goal doesn’t make sense across the city when different areas are more urban versus suburban, Porter said.

“We know we can’t regulate our way to any canopy goal,” Porter added. “We felt this very stark canopy decline trend in the infill, single lot residential areas was something we needed to address.”

Permit process, cost

The city’s goal is to make the permitting process quick for homeowners who would need to remove a tree, Porter said.

He hopes the process would take a matter of hours or days. It could depend on how big of a project the person is doing — whether it’s a demolition versus expanding a driveway.

They’ll wait to develop that process until they get input from the community.

City officials are proposing a $150 fee for homeowners looking to take a tree down on their property. That’s based on estimated staff time to review the permits, Porter said. It could change depending on what requirements are agreed upon in the final UDO.

In the end, Porter said, the city is aiming to balance property owner rights when it comes to development and protecting the city’s tree canopy.

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