Saturday, June 15, 2024

The city has 30K trees and wants to regulate its canopy to protect future loss

An urban canopy is considered the amount of tree cover from above; Wilmington’s canopy comprises 41% of city limits. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — In the last four years, Wilmington has lost 16% of its tree canopy — mainly due to natural disaster and development.

READ MORE: City considers waiving development fees to incentivize affordable housing

The city’s first-ever plan to regulate, maintain and preserve the tree canopy was introduced to council Tuesday, offering some positives for the community’s tree preservation, as well as some tips on what the city could do better.

The Urban Forestry Master Plan — developed by Davey Resource Group over the course of 18 months, with input from the city’s community services department — inventories the city’s tree count. It also assigns value to plantings and makes recommendations to improve future strategies.

The city contracted with DRG in August 2021 for $139,600 to conduct research, with a goal to prioritize tree maintenance, create an inventory, and educate the public on enhancing and protecting tree assets. The plan will be integral to the urban forestry division, tasked with managing the city’s tree system.

DRG estimated 32,500 trees exist citywide, 92% of which are in good or fair condition. 

It also showed the top five species — crepe myrtles, laurel oaks, live oaks, dogwoods and willow oaks— make up 58% of the total tree population.

Locally, crepe myrtles comprise 28%, Laurel oaks make up 14%, live oaks are 8% and dogwoods and willow oaks are 5% and 3% respectively.

A general rule of thumb for urban forestry, DRG assistant project manager Joe Joyner explained, is that no species should make up more than 10% of the total tree population. An urban forest is considered all publicly and privately owned trees growing within city limits.

Council member Charlie Rivenbark asked why the 10% rule is important.

“If you have monoculture, and an invasive insect for example, particularly Wilmington being a port city, you might lose a significant portion of your canopy just on that event,” Joyner told council. 

In terms of day-to-day tree loss, Joyner said the removal of a single large mature tree makes the most impact per tree basis on canopy loss, as well as on the budget of the forestry department. To replace lost trees, the city has planted 873 trees since 2020 and distributed 9,164 trees and seedlings, in partnership with partner organizations.

“Throughout the process, myself and my colleagues were taken by the amount of interest and level of passion for trees exhibited by citizens, stakeholders and public servants,” Joyner told council. 

A survey released between May and July 2022 garnered 1,537 responses.

The main takeaways: 94% strongly agree trees are important to Wilmington and 96% agree they are worth the financial cost to maintain them. However, 93% also said there were too few trees in the city.

In reality, the city’s tree canopy — branches, stems and leaves that cover the ground when viewed from above — is 41.4%, as of 2020, in line with the average for nationwide municipalities similar in size and scope. Comparable examples include Atlanta, Charlotte, Savannah and Annapolis; though Charleston, South Carolina, is well above with a 60% tree canopy cover.

DRG reported of its inventory that 10,126 trees and 323 stumps are within the 1945 Wilmington corporate limits — from the Cape River River east to Wallace Park and from Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway south to Greenfield Lake. 

More than 10,000 trees provide environmental benefits, including the removal of 5,980 pounds of airborne pollutants and particulate matter, absorbing 88 tons of carbon and intercepting 1.3 million gallons of rainwater.

DRG assistant project manager explained the top benefits of a healthy urban tree canopy are reducing and filtering stormwater, improving air quality, providing a habitat for wildlife, moderating the local climate, reducing energy costs, increasing property values, and enhancing the city’s aesthetics and character.

The city’s forestry budget was $1.13 million in fiscal year 2022. Spending equaled $34.77 per street tree, 35% lower than all U.S. cities’ average. 

Wilmington has a backlog of 904 tree service requests — assessments, pruning, removal, stump grinding — as of January 2023. The city saw an uptick in services in fiscal year 2020 due to more residents being home and recognizing tree needs more frequently.

The city performs most of its tree work in-house with a staff of seven covering 4,643 trees per employee. Willmington falls just under the nationwide city average of 4,821 trees per employee. 

The top work order is for pruning, at 89% of its role, with 8% dedicated to tree removal and 3% dedicated to stump grinding. Additional roles could help with the backlog of requests; it has budgeted for nine positions in the coming year. 

The master plan’s 11 recommendations include:

  • Complete the inventory of all public trees in Wilmington
  • Update the city’s urban tree canopy assessment
  • Establish a proactive management program for city trees
  • Develop and strengthen relationships and partnerships to support implementation of the urban forestry master plan
  • Ensure city regulations, best management practices and guidelines are in place to support tree growth and preservation
  • Focus tree planting and care in locations that advance city equity and sustainability goals and priorities
  • Develop and implement public engagement, outreach and education plan
  • Dedicate staff to support urban forest operations
  • Create and implement a program to monitor and address environmental threats to Wilmington’s urban forest
  • Improve communication, collaboration and coordination among city departments and outside entities
  • Develop a strategy to manage wood waste and identify the highest and best use of wood from trees removed from the city

City council will vote on a resolution to adopt the urban forestry master plan at a future meeting.

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