Trees could walk their own plank

By Haylley Johnson

Simplification is key. If you take a complex idea and condense it into something comprehensible, everyone can move on with their lives just a bit easier. Yet in the effort to simplify the city's convoluted tree ordinance, the main goal behind the Tree Canopy Preservation Ordinance revision, simplification could be considered a death warrant for San Antonio's older trees.

At the stakeholder committee meeting on Tuesday, July 14, no one probably intended a death warrant. People from both the developer and the conservation perspective make up this committee. According to a Development Services official who helped select the committee, Fernando De Leon, City Planning works frequently with the groups that provided the committee members: the Independent School Districts, The Citizens Tree Coalition, The Greater San Antonio Builders Association, etc. “We feel that we've created a balanced committee,” said De Leon. The committee's schedule indicates that the revised ordinance should be submitted to the City Council by February of 2010.

The revision was proposed to tidy up the ordinance and preserve our tree canopy, according to Tom Carrasco, the committee's mediator from Development Services. “There are a couple of issues. We had the tree canopy study that was completed by a private firm, American Forests. That report said San Antonio had to reach a certain canopy percentage to maintain our tree preservation,” said Carrasco. “Our current ordinance, right now, is somewhat confusing, and PDSD staff has spent a lot of time explaining what the ordinance means.”

“`Simplification` is important in that everybody needs to understand the rules, so that we can actually enforce the rules,” said Michael Nentwich, a committee member and a city forester from San Antonio Parks and Recreation. “There were some confusing components of the ordinance like sometimes the counting aspects of it. Legal terminology can be confusing.”

One central change is that the percentage of trees developers must preserve is based on the tree canopy alone. While it might not appear too dangerous at first glance, many environmentalists are wary because this adjustment potentially allows for favoring new trees over the older more beneficial trees.

Since the amount of trees preserved will be based on the tree canopy instead of tree species and trunk width, developers have the option to consider details such as the species and age of a tree if they feel the monetary savings warrant the preservation of older trees. At last Tuesday's stakeholder meeting, only Paul Johnson, the regional urban forester from the Texas Forest Service, voiced the potential negative consequences. “Species have a lot of impact on how much that tree does for us. A big tree cleans more air, filters more water, and captures more water than even a small collection of newly planted trees,” Johnson said.

“Looking at the tree canopy is one of the things that `foresters` do as an initial stage, but what you really want to know is what size and species there are to know what action to take,” said Johnson. “You have a better idea of where a building should go if you know that on the east side of the property you have a stand of smaller shorter-lived trees and on the west side you have larger longer-lived tree species which are those that will give us the most environmental benefit.”

“The forest service has realized that kinds of trees are be important not merely canopy,” Loretta Van Coppenolle, conservation chair for the Alamo group of the Sierra Club, said.

Since specific tree measurements will not be mandatory, “It leaves it open to too many abilities to not know or not care,” Johnson said.

Check out Johnson's reaction to Tuesday's meeting:

The cost of a lost tree can be very applicable to San Antonian's daily life. In an article titled “Trees Can Bring Us More Rain” written by Van Coppenolle, the ability of trees to reduce pollutants is emphasized. Trees absorb particulate matter and other pollutants which decreases the formation of ground level ozone.

“Ozone is a much bigger threat to San Antonio `than other pollutants`,” Brenda Williams, a projects manager who focuses on air quality for AACOG, said. “Government EPA sets standards for how much ozone is allowed into our air. For a year now we have been really close to that standard, which could mean violation,” said Williams. “So far, we've managed to avoid it.”

Despite the worries of environmentalists, Norman Dugas, a former Greater San Antonio Builder's Association board member and local real estate developer, remains confident that residential builders will still try to preserve trees due to incentives and humans' the natural desire to not cut down a tree if they have a choice. “In the residential context, we save every tree that we practically can because every tree we save makes the lot more valuable and the house easier to sell,” Dugas said.

If they preserve a heritage or champion tree, they get more canopy cover credit than if they were to plant a new tree, and preserving trees saves them money. In general, “`the revised ordinance` adds a lot of cost to every site because of the huge increase in planting requirements that are in this proposal,” said Dugas. While they used to only have to plant two trees per lot in the original ordinance, builders would now have to plant six trees per average residential lot, according to Dugas.

However, the simplification could save on housing costs. “`The original ordinance` was complex and convoluted in the process of compliance. It was very expensive to go through the process,” said Dugas. “It is important to understand the cost of all this is born by the new home buyer.”

Check out another builder's (Jim Leonard a Greater San Antonio Builder's Association Executive) reaction to Tuesday's meeting:

There are threats and there are benefits from both sides of the line. “No one I know wants to remove trees, however the fact is, it is a balancing of needs,” said Dugas. “The need to preserve verses the need for roads, hospitals and the benefits of urban society.” The divide might not be as severe as Dugas suggests, and as to which need is greater, the opinions vary significantly.

“It could work just fine or it could be a real disaster,” said Johnson. “We won't know until after the changes occur and they will be extremely difficult to reverse.” What appeared simple at first could create some very complex problems.

The date of the next stakeholder meeting is still unknown because the committee asked Development Services for information concerning how the revised ordinance would affect the city of San Antonio. Until this research is finished, the meeting will be delayed.

If you want to have your voice heard, attend the next committee meeting whose date, when determined, will be posted on

Correction: * In the original post, the Planning and Development Services Department was incorrectly referred to as Public Development Services.