Friday, August 12, 2022

Comparing tree protection ordinances in Wilmington and New Hanover County

Signs adorn large oak trees in Ogden near the new Starbucks location calling for people to 'Save Big Oaks' as more and more development threatens the historic trees (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
Signs adorn large oak trees in Ogden near the new Starbucks location calling for people to ‘Save Big Oaks’ as more and more development threatens the historic trees. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WILMINGTON — Visitors to Charleston or Savannah will be sure to notice the abundance of massive oak trees draped in Spanish Moss lining the streets and dotting the parking lots of developments. It’s no accident – in fact, one of the first laws on Savannah’s books was the prohibition of cutting down trees.

“General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1733 and one of the first ordinances in the new colony was a prohibition against cutting trees, stating ‘No tree may be cut without the express permission of Noble Jones,'” according to the City of Savannah’s website.

(Editor’s note: Jones, one of the colony’s first settlers, is obviously no longer the arboreal arbiter, but the city’s code is still tough, allowing officials to fine developers and issue ‘stop work’ orders to those who cut down trees without permission.)

After a recent outcry of New Hanover County residents regarding the possible razing of the beloved live oaks located at the current location of Islands Fresh Mex Grill in Ogden, New Hanover County is getting ready to reevaluate its own tree-cutting policy.

The county’s current ‘Tree Retention’ ordinance does support the need for tree preservation.

“New Hanover County enthusiastically supports new development that protects and preserves the natural assets which make our area so desirable as a place to live, work and recreate. Old-growth native species trees are an important natural asset. The County recognizes the value and benefit of mature trees in protecting, preserving and enhancing quality of life for present and future citizens,” the current policy reads.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons besides aesthetics to help preserve trees.

According to the county’s ordinance, some of these reasons include:

  • Conservation of energy by shading buildings and paved surfaces
  • Filtering of airborne pollutants
  • Removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide
  • Reduction of stormwater runoff
  • Slowing of floodwaters
  • Recharging of groundwater
  • Protecting the cultural and historic character of the area
  • Increasing the value of homes and businesses

That said, it is still reasonably easy for landowners to get permits to cut down most any tree on their land. In some cases, mitigation fees are required based on the size of the trees involved. For example, the approximate cost of mitigating the razing of the dozen or so oak trees at Islands’ would have been $39,000. That cost might be prohibitive for residential landowners but, for many developers, such fees have simply been absorbed into the cost of a project.

Following the incident at the Islands’ location, County Commissioner Woody White took to Twitter to express his desire for the county to revisit the tree policy and asked county staff to expedite the process.

The county is already in the process of updating its Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), a lengthy process that has been several years in the making.

According to County Spokeswoman Kate Oelslager, the county was already working on updating the tree ordinance and it was initially going to be revised in the winter of this year but will be expedited to September. Because the county had been focusing on other aspects of the UDO, especially new zoning options, there isn’t much information available on what the new tree ordinance will look like.

City of Wilmington

Photograph of oak trees being taken apart after they were cut down without a permit on the State Street Companies’ Galleria property. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)

The City of Wilmington also has its own Tree Preservation code in effect, it requires tree cutting permits and mitigation for the removal of different trees — but it has not stopped developers from clear-cutting land to make way for their projects. Further,  the city has a history of letting developers off without having to even pay the fines they have been assessed for the illegal cutting.

However, the city has shown it is willing to enforce fines for individual residents who cut down a few trees on their own property — oftentimes without knowing a permit was even required.

One man was fined thousands and told he had to plant 25 new trees to replace the six he had removed from his land prior in an effort to protect his property in case of a storm — only a few months later Hurricane Florence hit. Mayor Bill Saffo did say that the city eventually negotiated a deal with the owner of the land reducing his fine to $200 and requiring him to plant just six trees instead of 25.

A tree canopy map of the City of Wilmington (Port City Daily/Courtesy GIC)
A tree canopy map of the City of Wilmington (Port City Daily/Courtesy GIC)

The City of Wilmington was actually selected to participate in a study regarding its urban tree canopy; Wilmington was one of two cities from the state selected for the study.

Green Infrastructure Center Executive Director Karen Firehock offered the City Council an in-depth look at the number of trees currently in the city, and some of the reasons why leaders should want to protect the natural resources.

One of the biggest concerns with disappearing trees is the increasing of flooding due to storms and tidal events.

“One statistic is an acre of pavement produces 36 times more runoff than a forest. Another way to look at it is if it rains 1 inch, a forest will have 750 gallons of runoff — a parking lot will produce 27,000 gallons,” Firehock said.

Suggestions from GIC included spending more money to maintain a healthy urban forest and provide proactive tree maintenance.

Despite having a seemingly robust tree ordinance in place, balancing development with preservation will continue to be an issue in New Hanover County as well as the City of Wilmington as more new residents flock to the area.

The New Hanover County Board of County Commissioners will address the update to the tree code at its Sept. 3 meeting at 4 p.m.


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