Friday, February 20, 2015

The Void Desecrating North Carolina

I didn’t realize until I saw one while driving cross country, that Rodeway Inns were still in existence.  One of my summer jobs in 1966 prior to college had been moving the furnishings into a brand new Rodeway Inn.

Actually there are still 150 in existence.  At one located above the Clanton Road interchange to I-77 in Charlotte, North Carolina, the owner just illegally clear-cut hundreds of publicly owned trees, ostensibly to make the aging facility more prominent.

That carnage is about 3 miles south of where we will be staying this weekend to have dinner with several friends over in Dilworth and Myers Park districts where the value of trees is made paramount.

But visibility is not that particular Rodeway’s problem.  It has been rated barely a 1.5 out of five possible stars by former guests.

It is a mistake that leads so many visitor related business to defiantly still advertise on roadside billboards, which in North Carolina, have now been given permission by the legislature to clear cut publicly owned trees with impunity, with no recompense to Tar Heels, and then to sell the wood to cover the cost of cutting them down.

It has enabled a torrent of illegal cutting by businesses across the state including Durham where we live.

Now a bill has been introduced in the State legislature to eliminate the NCDOT Roadside Division (see section 2.4 h at link), further beheading any enforcement to prevent illegal cutting and making the likelihood of reforestation nil.

In doing so, legislators would eliminate the division responsible for scenic byways and the award-winning wildflower program along Interstates.

Visitor-related businesses that defiantly use the billboards and enable desecration of the very North Carolina brand upon which they must rely are now joined in that irony by many in the legislature who seek to do likewise, while giving lip service to attracting economic development.

All of this is taking place as studies show that the percentage of consumers and businesses in America that find billboards useful has fallen to less than two-tenths of one percent while 8-out-of-10 drivers and passengers view them merely as blight.

In other words, even if traditional advertising had not fallen to a negative return on investment overall, the turn-off to turn-on ratio for billboard advertisers is tantamount to throwing money into the wind.

Of course, special interests began to deploy copious amounts of campaign donations fifty years ago to undermine highway beatification legislation in America and today even gatekeepers seem under the influence of Stockholm syndrome.

Recently, the Federal Highway Administration humorously declared that digital billboards that change every few seconds are not considered to be, well, intermittent which would make them unsafe and illegal.

The science used or lack thereof was quickly debunked by an independent peer review but it has been nearly 35 years since that agency was proactive in defense of roadside forests owned by taxpayers, having been throttled by special interest influence with lawmakers.

Durham is considering doing an inventory which, if done according to best practices, will include the city and the county and its entire urban forest canopy, not just publicly owned.

The results will give officials, residents and private property owners sticker shock when the value of this part of the community’s green infrastructure is finally appraised.

North Carolina is back in the “dark ages” when it comes to appraising the value of its roadside forests, deeming the value to be that of use as pulp.

Professionals who appraise the value of trees are about to get a much needed update when the 10th edition of The Value for Plant Appraisal is released.

A recent study documented that nationwide, 4 million trees are lost each years in urban environments.  Durham’s trees are beloved by residents but within the city, overall tree canopy has fallen now to less than 5% above the national average.

Neil Norton, who heads the Georgia Arborist Association, an organization dedicated to increasing the availability of professional arborists to Georgians, recently published a post about why accurately valuing trees is important.

He reminds us that the reason communities such as Durham have tree retention and preservation ordinances is to encourage better design of developments.  Left uninformed about the value of trees, decisions about design are driven by bankers given to cookie cutter designs.

While state officials have been busy sacrificing North Carolina’s curb appeal for not only tourism but the more than 80% of newcomers and relocating executives and business expansion scouts who secretly come as visitors first, cities have been going in the opposite direction.

As noted in The Atlantic’s Citylab last week by Deborah Snoonian Glenn, if you want your city to thrive, look to its trees.  This is not only for health and curb appeal but because they are good for business.

A gap in the otherwise incredible scientific documentation in this regard is the influence of trees on visitor-centric economic development.

Unfortunately, even that may not prevent what that Rodeway owner did in Charlotte.  Only by making the punishment truly match the crime will some businesses think twice.

When they do, rather than blaming the tree canopy for their woes, they may realize how desperately they are needed and turn attention to far more critical metrics for customer satisfaction.

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