Wednesday, February 05, 2014

It Is Really A Failure To Be Strategic

There is quite a bit of neighborhood listserv chatter in Durham, North Carolina, where I live, over a proposal endorsed by administrators to amend the community’s tree coverage policy to facilitate a fourteen-acre development.

I’d like to make the case that this is a failure by public administrators to think strategically as many community’s do as well as give an example I believe Durham should follow.

Although there may be merit to the specifics of this request, amending the entire ordinance seems extreme.  Administrators admit in emails that they really aren’t resourced to do a full impact analysis in such a short time which is also usually the result of a failure to budget strategically.

Although they intended to revisit that requirement themselves in the future, I fear such a drastic approach was also influenced by the $4,000 fee attached to an amendment proposed by private interests.  Council was right to send it back for more study.

But the real problem isn’t this request.  It is symptomatic of how penny-pinching without sufficient strategic context puts a community at risk.

Of course, in Durham, the request set off alarm bells with hyper-vigilant neighborhood sentinels who have become nearly every community’s primary defense for public interest.

This became necessity after public administrators began to buy into bullying thirty years ago from special interests that those paid to gate-keep should instead always remain “neutral”

But the real problem, shared by both the city and county here and far too common in other well-managed communities is a failure to be strategic or maybe a more appropriate term is strategic neglect.

Both have so-called strategic operational plans to bring focus to day-to-day activities but in the overarching sense they have few, if any, truly strategic plans to inform decisions around requests such as this.

The stark reality is that Durham simply doesn’t have an inventory and valuation of overall green infrastructure upon which to base tree requirements or variations.

Our administrators are among the best but proposals to spend $12,500 each by the city and county to get a strategic grasp of something so crucial to our economy, sense of place and public health have been vetoed even though such a plan would have support among elected officials.

Instead, well-meaning public servants are left to do what they can piecemeal, and then only regarding trees on public property rather than  using a holistic best practice approach urban forest.

The failure to secure a comprehensive inventory and management plan saves a few thousand dollars up front but shifts huge costs to local government, residents, property owners and developers as we fly blind regarding the value of trees and vegetation.

By blind, I mean that we have no clue if we need to compensate more or less for the 3.91 acres per day that we are putting under development.  We have no idea how to measure the effectiveness of tree planting initiatives because we have no baseline.

What we do know is that land converted to development and impervious surface over the last forty years has roughly outpaced population growth by 8 to 1.

Is it still not worth $25,000 or so to get a handle on what and how much we should do and where as well as give landowners and developers cost factors to weigh with regard to tree cover?

In a holistic sense, the urban forest is a huge component of our community’s critical infrastructure and we have only cursory documentation.

An example of the plan that Durham needs is the comprehensive assessment conducted a few years ago for Wilmington/New Castle County, Delaware using i-Tree Eco, a free, open-source, peer reviewed model developed for communities by the United States Forest Service.

I’ve spoken with and blogged using the research of the lead developer before.

The data collection can be coordinated by local forestry officials using summer student interns from the Duke School for the Environment or NC State’s forestry school when they intern in northern Durham each year.

It involves the use of hand held field units which upload directly or securing licenses on smartphones such as the one the city has as a beta.  But the two hundred select 1/10th acre plots need to be measured over no more than a two year period and not just on public land.

They aren’t just any 200 plots.

They need to be taken randomly throughout the county including areas that are residential, urban, rural and commercial.  They also span forested areas, wetlands/lakes, agricultural areas, transportation corridors and parks.

I believe, like the example I linked, they should also include particularly sensitive storm run-off areas and watersheds.

The data is uploaded as it is taken and then the model calibrates details to local conditions such as weather, pollution etc.

Like Durham, the Wilmington/New Castle County area got the “cart in front of the horse” too.  They also had started tree initiatives only to realize they needed a baseline for these efforts to make any sense or be measurable.

As you would see if you read the study, it provides local governments, including land-use planners as well as private property owners and developers, tools such as:

  • A baseline for the number and age of trees and the percentage of each species as well as their overall health and management needs to minimize risk.
  • Indepth, ground-up augmentation that can dovetail with the more superficial, top-down satellite measures of just tree canopy, including the intriguing EPA approach for which Durham is currently a beta.
  • Quantification of the overall value of the urban forest and overall green infrastructure in a variety of ways including carbon storage, air and water purification and climate control, all calibrated to local climate and other variables.
  • Pinpointed areas for tree retention and reforestation.
  • Optimization of tree ordinances and planning decisions.
  • Information to inform residential, landowner and developer decisions as well as guide urban forestry maintenance.

There are many reasons not to try to do this on the cheap nor to be piecemeal.  A baseline such as this helps administrators, planners, foresters, neighborhoods and developers as well as elected officials understand the huge tradeoffs involved.

It provides a bigger picture context within which to make little picture decisions and variances.  It helps communities understand and stress the value urban forest retention but maybe even more important, it helps establish impact-based reforestation offsets for impervious surface.

It helps roadside maintenance engineers understand the value of trees before they clear cut them just to extend maintenance schedules.  It also provides much more accurate fiscal notes to lawmakers to inform any decisions to sacrifice trees for things such as billboards.

Failing to come up with $12,500 each for a joint city-county baseline inventory and analysis such as this is not the only area where local officials may be short-term frugal but long-term spendthrift.

Durham jumped on a broad brush historic inventory of historic buildings in the 1980s and 1990s but then failed to finish the job.

We have failed, with fits and starts, to do further in-depth neighborhood by neighborhood or era by era assessments commonly performed in similar sized communities.

This has put sense-of-place guardians on guard about everything while leaving developers and property owners in the dark, often at great expense.

Being strategic means that short term tactical decisions to save a penny don’t unwittingly result in huge costs down line. 

We need a strategic approach to find and maintain balance with growth.  Trying to do it on the cheap is the most expensive approach possible.

There is nothing wrong with being tightfisted when it comes to tax dollars but without strategic assessments, it may result in a huge hidden cost.

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