Sure, Only God Can Make a Tree. But a New Dallas Tree Ordinance? That's Man-Made.

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Monday's public hearing on changes to Dallas's tree ordinance -- Article X of the Dallas City Code, to be specific -- was quiet, cordial, and borderline erudite. Every commenter seemed as well-informed as he or she was passionate, and the breadth of experience -- from two former city council members to a certified landscape architect and representatives from several neighborhood and building associations -- almost eclipsed the fact that there were only eight people who actually commented during the two-hour meeting in a basement auditorium of City Hall.

Bill Seaman -- the Dallas Urban Forest Advisory Committee's team leader for planning, development and city codes -- made the introductions; appropriate, as he's written most of the committee's proposed revisions to the tree ordinance, which you can read here. Seaman and Steve Houser, the DUFAC chair, say they've spent years gathering comments and opinions of everyone from homeowners and green-building advocates to developers and builders. The culmination of those years is a document that's broad, comprehensive and ... well, a little confusing. At least, that's what most of the audience members seemed to think.

"There's enough vagueness in this that needs some serious review," said Frank Bracken, a resident of Southwest Dallas who got involved in Dallas's tree issues in part because of his ranch's proximity to the notorious Grady Niblo "moonscape." Bracken's sentiment was echoed by Melanie Van Landingham, the president of the Dallas Homeowners League, who shared Bracken's concern that such trees as cedar and hackberry -- which make up a significant portion of the canopy cover in certain sectors of the city -- weren't listed as protected and that things like the new, algorithm-based "matrix" for determining a developer's mitigation (or replanting) responsibilities were just this side of totally incomprehensible.
But perhaps the toothiest comments came from Save Open Space board member Sandy Greyson, who noted that although she'd been on the original task force to draft Dallas's first tree ordinance in the early 1990s, she preferred not to be associated with that ordinance because "what we came up with was ... more of a tree replacement ordinance than a tree preservation ordinance."

"If what you are trying to do is create a true tree preservation ordinance, then I applaud this effort," Greyson said, before launching into a series of concerns as to whether that goal was achievable with the current draft. Greyson quoted from the part of Seaman's introduction to the revisions that expresses a hope to "change Article X from what can be a deterrent to development to a pro-development ordinance while still maintaining a sustainability goal."

"That statement really does concern me," Greyson said. "I got the impression that you're trying to use carrots and sticks, and that you'd like a lot more carrots than sticks -- carrots in the form of incentives," she continued. Houser and Seaman nodded. "And I think that's good, but I think that if you don't use any effective sticks, you get what happened in Pleasant Grove or Buckner Terrace. You get what happened on Mountain Creek Parkway, where the developer clear-cut and he left a moonscape where there once was a beautiful wooded area.

"The bottom line is," Greyson concluded, "what changes would you be making in this that would not ever allow something like that to happen again?"

If those kinds of criticisms were a bitter pill, Houser didn't express it -- at least not until the conclusion of the hearing, following an enthusiastic speech by Bob Stimson, president of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, and a couple of hopeful missives by builders.

"Years ago, I used to be as anti-development as you could get," Houser told the handful of attendees. But Houser said that over the years, he realized that developers "have their problems too. We're not anti-development; we've never been anti-development. As a tree person, to give away tree mitigation credits was not something I ever wanted to do." But doing so was necessary, he explained, in order to incentivize sustainable tree preservation.

Seaman is continuing to collect public comments -- at least for the next couple of weeks, until the draft revisions go to the City Attorney's Office. He also says there might be another public meeting in the evening if there's enough interest. E-mail him here if you'd like to comment privately.
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