TRAVERSE CITY — Trees in Traverse City have some new protections under an amended ordinance city leaders recently passed, especially mature trees.
Commissioners voted 5-2 to adopt the ordinance, long the focus of debate and disagreement, with Commissioners Richard Lewis and Tim Werner voting against. Public commenters said they thought the rules are watered-down compared to what The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay once proposed.
The amendment is a step, albeit not a perfect one, Commissioner Brian McGillivary said — few zoning ordinances are, he added.
“I think there’s probably some holes in it and some things that can be improved upon, but it’s better than what we currently have, so it’s definitely an improvement,” he said, adding it can be changed later.
City Planner Russ Soyring said the ordinance requires owners of lots with one or two dwellings to have at least one tree per 4,000 square feet. That would work out to two trees per lot for most residents, he said.
The ordinance also creates minimum tree canopy cover requirements for most other zoning types within the city, including multifamily, commercial and hospital districts, according to the ordinance. Those range from 10 percent in the city’s downtown C-4 district to 50 percent in its residential conservation, R-1A single family and R-9 multifamily residential districts.
Anyone who can’t meet the requirement can pay $300 into a city tree planting fund to get credit for 500 square feet of coverage, the ordinance reads.
Stronger permitting requirements target large-scale cuttings, with a previous permit requirement for clearing woody vegetation dropping to 4,000 square feet or more from 8,000, according to the ordinance. Permits are also needed to cut more than 10 trees wider than 6 inches at breast height, or two wider than 24 inches. Healthy trees within waterfront setbacks must be preserved, unless the state lists them as invasive species.
Owners of parcels with three dwellings or more must comply with the ordinance for any building project requiring a permit and valued at $20,000 or more, if they cut enough trees to require a permit or if they build a parking lot, according to the ordinance. Same goes for all other property in the city aside from lots with one or two dwellings.
Trees removed for aeronautical use, to clear airspace obstructions or for an essential service building are exempt, the ordinance states.
Werner took part in subcommittees to craft the ordinance and was critical of the final result. The city can do a lot through leading by example — planting lots more street trees and replacing invasives with canopy trees on a patch of public land, to name two. The ordinance imposes on private property owners and is more about aesthetics than the environment, he said.
The tree fund the ordinance creates also seems disingenuous to Werner, he said. City commissioners should commit to funding trees instead of the “back-door” funding method planning commissioners devised.
“Let’s just say, yes, we value trees, we’re going to fund them $100,000 next year, not oh, we can penalize these evil developers and we’ll make them pay for the trees,” he said.
Commissioner Amy Shamroe ultimately supported the change but said she had misgivings, including about how much developers could have to pay. She wanted to see a cap on that amount, and worried the ordinance could hinder much-needed housing builds.
Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council co-chairs Ann Rogers and Greg Reisig both said they thought the ordinance was weak but serves as a good starting place. They also urged commissioners to hire an urban forester — there’s money in the budget but the city Parks and Recreation superintendent recently suggested other hires, including for tree trimming and watering.
City resident Gary Howe said the city isn’t far off from having a healthy tree canopy. The city needs to plant more trees each year, and he wanted to see an ordinance with more incentives for private partners to plant more.
Mayor Jim Carruthers said many of the things city commissioners approve aren’t perfect, but they are starting points.
“Hopefully in the next few years we’ll strengthen this, and with any luck we’ll budget for a forester to help us manage our tree canopy in the future,” he said.