TRAVERSE CITY — Regulations aimed at protecting Traverse City's tree canopy are budding as a committee hones their recommendations.
Trees larger than six inches in diameter would get special consideration in the city's multifamily, commercial and industrial zoning districts. That's how tentative ideas from city commissioners, planning board members and employees would have it.
City Planner Russ Soyring is a member, as are commissioners Brian McGillivary, Tyler Bevier and Chairwoman Linda Koebert. All four sought and got input from other planners on those ideas at a recent meeting. Planning commissioner Anna Dituri was absent.
Anyone cutting two trees larger than 24 inches in diameter at breast height would need a land use permit, Soyring said. Same goes for cutting 10 or more trees 6 inches in diameter at breast height.
Zoning ordinances would also require a site plan review for any development that would require clearing more than 20,000 square feet of woody vegetation, Soyring said. Anyone building new or expanding existing structures would need to comply, according to a summary from Soyring.
The time and money a hearing would take could deter such clearings, Soyring said.
"I think based on conversations historically, people would like to avoid coming to the planning commission if they can," he said.
Exemptions for those in one- and two-residence neighborhoods from all save a few of the regulations could change, Koebert said — they'd need at least one tree per 4,000 square feet of property under rules discussed Tuesday.
Tree-clearing regulations wouldn't stop cuttings on Cherry Capital Airport land if they're for aeronautical purposes, according to legal opinions from both the city and airport commission attorneys.
Koebert said the optics of recent cuttings on airport land were "very bad," and she thinks the public shaming that happened afterward has prompted airport officials to see things differently.
A solar farm now under consideration for some of the cleared land wouldn't get the trees back, but carbon-free energy is another community value as well, Koebert said.
Koebert said the trees committee must next come up with penalties for those who would be impacted by the rules.
She told other planners who posed questions about various potential loopholes that it's hard to write an ordinance that can catch every what-if.
"That's not a city I want to live in that those of us who follow the rules have to jump through so many hoops to catch one bad actor," she said.
Planners did agree to address a few what-ifs in what they recommended by an 8-0 vote as a stopgap to save trees while more rules are in the works.
That change would give the planning director room to vary front and backyard setbacks — limits on how close a building can sit to the front and back lot lines.
Commissioner Janet Fleshman proposed changes including limits on how far the planner could go, and planners agreed to cap it at 50 percent.
They also agreed that anyone who receives a variance to save a tree has to keep that plant for at least five years, and to ax any wiggle room for side yard setbacks — those would allow a building to be built closer to a neighbor's and limits are often fairly tight as is, Soyring said.
Dropping side setback flexibility also appears in a letter to planners from The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay's Heather Smith and T.J. Andrews — the nonprofit's baykeeper and legal counsel, respectively — outlining eight concerns with the recommendations thus far.
Others in the letter questioned confusing, potentially conflicting or nonexistent standards, and another issue that Koebert said is becoming a sticking point at the committee: whether to keep or cut shoreline trees deemed invasive — Smith and Andrews wrote keep.
Those trees serve as habitat to animals that could be facing extinction because of climate change, commissioner Heather Shaw said.
A city forester could address the shoreline trees question, commissioner Michele Howard said. There's $100,000 in the just-passed city budget for July 2019 through June 2020, she later added.
That entry is a placeholder, and city commissioners have yet to discuss the idea further, McGillivary said.
Trees committee members took back comments to their group and are set to meet again June 13, Koebert said.
Each change to one part of the proposal has impacts elsewhere, McGillivary said. He wants to see all the proposals in the form of a draft ordinance to better understand that interrelation, he said — it's premature to say much more until then, he said.
"So it's really kind of a question of how it will look when it's all done," he said. "I can't even tell you if I'll support it."