Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Step Forward For Durham Trees, Maybe

My long ago adopted hometown of Durham, North Carolina justifiably prides itself on consistently garnering what is very likely the broadest range of accolades for a community of any size while also managing to cling to its sense of place.

So it has always been puzzling when officials let the community fall so far behind in areas near and dear, according to opinion polls, to Durham residents.

I suppose it is because thirty angry people haven’t shown up to meetings in orange shirts waving pitchforks (smile.)

There is an unfortunate tendency among elected bodies and executives at every level now to only move to action based on a vocal (or email) demonstration of anger (or at the request of special interests) rather than thinking strategically about what is best for everyone in the long term.

See for yourself.  Ask officials why they haven’t addressed something and you’ll be amazed how often you hear that it is because no one has brought it up or been upset about it.

One of the three areas where Durham has uncharacteristically fallen so far behind despite sentiment from a majority of residents just took the beginning of what could be a big step forward last month thanks to as request by the City Council initiated by Council member Steve Schewel.

The Joint City-County Environmental Affairs Board (EAB) issued a set of recommendations a few weeks ago that is consistent with earlier legislative priorities submitted by the Durham Appearance Advocacy Group, an independent coalition.

The report was assembled very quickly and under the circumstances is well crafted.  Though certainly not encyclopedic in scope, it is somewhat comprehensive in breadth.

From here the recommendations will hopefully be discussed in strategic meetings and then with any luck make it into the budget.  Frankly, I am heartened just to see it get attention.

I am puzzled, though, at to why the report deals only with the City portion of the tree canopy rather than county-wide as the joint city-county mandate of the EAB would have suggested.

Because it included a number, several news reports I read seemed to focus only on a recommendation that City government increase tree planting to 1,680 trees annually on its own property over the next 20 years, just to keep pace.

But that amount wouldn’t be enough to replace the trees along a tenth of a mile of the street where I live or to replace a day and half worth of the trees sacrificed each year to development here.

My calculated guess, based not only on information received from urban forestry but the average number of acres transformed each day to impervious surface,is that county-wide Durham should be planting more in the neighborhood of 8,000 to 9,000 trees a year.

But the number needed can be reconciled by implementing the first recommendation in the report, if performed holistically and according to best practices.

This seemingly far more strategic recommendation in the report is that the City adopt a proactive Urban Forest Master Plan including a city-wide inventory.

But then it seems the wording becomes contradictory to best practices for tree inventories and master plans of this type when city-wide and public property are used in the same sentence.

This inconsistent wording is reflective of differences of opinion among city administrators deep in the department responsible for urban forestry about whether to follow best practices or dumb down expectations to address only city property.

I suspect the primary author knew that inventories and master plans of this type deal with the entire tree canopy across every type of property but that a reviewer somewhere in the chain plopped in “public property” as a means to dumb down expectations.

It has been observed that this difference of opinion regarding scope among bureaucrats may be the chief reason Durham’s urban forest infrastructure has fallen into such neglect over the years.

Whether Durham finally addresses this neglect may come down to City Council members familiar with this critical difference and willing to be strategic.

Urban forestry experts at the highest level are clear:

“Comprehensive urban forest management considers all trees and associated elements across the entire jurisdiction to adequately address a heterogeneous landscape held by numerous land owners. A first step in developing a proper management plan is to assess the current composition and distribution of a community’s trees…”

The report also lists a few communities as best practices, chosen for proximity, to preempt comments such as “Durham isn’t (fill in the blank)” if truly best practice communities had been noted.

While residents overwhelmingly believe Durham is “where great things happen,” we must always remember that two our of every three people working here - including those working in local government - don’t live here, making it seem as though Durham doesn’t believe in itself or expects less than “great things.”

I say, “Bless their hearts,” to use a southern euphemism for “How pathetic!” or worse (smile.)

It is also very puzzling that the report deals only with the city, rather than the entire single-city county of Durham, the purview of the joint EAB which issued the report.

It is hard to believe the nature of the request led to a less than holistic treatment.  Urban forest exists in the county even if it doesn’t have an urban forester per se and urban forestry experts are clear that management plans need to address both the city and county.

Hopefully, members of the City Council as well as senior management will not just skim the report but will go as far as to read between the lines and reach out to include the Board of County Commissioners and County manager in the discussions.

A good inventory and master plan such as the assessment performed for Wilmington, Delaware and the surrounding county of New Castle will provide 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.
  • In-depth, 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.

As Durham has done recently with other types of neglected infrastructure, the only advantage of coming from so far down is the opportunity to truly leap frog to becoming a best practice.

One resident has even recommended a break on property taxes for upkeep and improvement of tree canopy on private property.

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