NEW HANOVER COUNTY–– Elected city leaders say they were disheartened by New Hanover County’s clear-cutting of hundreds of trees within Wilmington’s jurisdiction for the planned Healing Place substance-use recovery center.
Through its consultants, the county razed 402 regulated trees on the 8.7-acre lot off Medical Center Drive. To mitigate the loss, the county will replant 3.5 times fewer trees back on the site and more than 650 shrubs.
More than 300 longleaf pines, about 90 oaks, and a handful of flowering trees were removed due to recent construction activity to make way for the 200-bed detox center.
“We were upset with that,” Mayor Bill Saffo said.
A rolling terrain
In general, “Developers can preserve a lot more trees than they’re taking down,” Saffo said.
The mayor recognizes some site locations and utility needs don’t always lend themselves to preservation, but he said he’d prefer to see more trees on the perimeter and interior, wherever possible, be retained.
“There can be a lot more done to protect them than what is currently being done,” he said.
At a joint council and planning commission meeting last month, city councilman Kevin O’Grady was dismayed at the tree loss on the property.
“I can’t believe that they just clear-cut that site,” he said. “That was all wooded. I don’t know whether there were trees in there that were worth keeping or not. But it’s distressing that all those trees came out.”
New Hanover County’s plans call for a five-building layout with a central men and women’s courtyard, connected by curved pavement, accented by five ovular paved pads and a “reflecting pool.” A parking lot will hug the south end of the project, set to feature islands of shrub-bordered zelkovas, a non-native, developer-friendly tree known to withstand tough conditions.
“I drove by it when it was first clear-cut and just groaned,” said Dr. James Gregory, chair of the Wilmington Tree Commission. “Oh my, here we go again.”
Given the property’s fluctuating landscape, Gregory recognizes it wouldn’t have been easy for for the county to have saved many of the interior trees it sacrificed for its $25 million publicly funded project.
“When you look at this overall site plan, it would have been difficult to design something with this high density,” he said. “[I]t would have been difficult to get all of these buildings and parking lots in there without removing the amount of trees as they did.”
The site’s rolling topography required extensive site work to grade the property for essential improvements, Gregory observed, but still, he said he thinks more trees could have been saved.
He compliments the patches preserved along the site’s buffer (in all, the county saved 18 regulated oaks, 62 pines, and a few flowering trees in its outlying tree-save areas), but added it would have been nice to see more on the perimeter and interior. “I would have liked to have seen more patches like that that do provide undisturbed soil for stormwater runoff infiltration and, of course, for wildlife habitat,” he said.
More than the clear-cutting, Gregory is disappointed in a “poorly done” replanting schedule with “no indication of knowledge of local ecology.”
“They probably could have done more [to save trees] but what really, really struck me is the landscape plan,” he said. Out of the eight species of shrubs to be replaced, just one is native to the area, Gregory explained.
A majority of the trees to be planted are non-native as well –– “I have never seen a sugar maple that anyone has planted here.”
The landscape plan is chocked full of “boiler plate material” that doesn’t relate to the local climate, he explained. “Why did they have to go to Raleigh to hire these design firms when we have very, very good design firms right here?” Gregory remarked of both the landscape designer and architectural firm for the project.
In his role leading the tree commission, Gregory has ushered the city to steer developers toward more native plants; city code specifically encourages but does not require native plants to mitigate tree loss.
“Landscape plans like this should include more of an emphasis on native trees and shrubs,” he said.
For a tree to be considered “significant,” thus triggering a more aggressive replanting schedule if removed, a hardwood’s diameter must be more than 24 inches; a conifer’s must be 32 inches, a flowering tree must be at least 8 inches, measured at breast height.
No significant trees were present on site, according to the (previously) existing conditions survey.
In city limits, tree protections kick in for hardwoods (including oaks) at 8 inches in diameter, conifers at 12 inches, and 4-inch flowering trees.
The largest oak removed was 15 inches in diameter; the largest pine was 19 inches.
Wilmington’s latest version of its rewritten Land Development Code would drop the significant hardwood minimum threshold to 20 inches and a conifer’s to 24 inches. It would also introduce a new echelon of “specimen” trees, which apply to hardwoods 24 inches in diameter or larger. This designation is modeled after New Hanover County’s specimen category but is 12 inches smaller (thereby, more stringent). The county created this new category of tree as a response to public backlash in 2019 that prompted the developer of a car wash at the old Island’s Fresh Mex Grill site in Ogden to redesign his plans around century-old live oaks they intended to cut down.
Live oaks, bald cypress, and pond cypress 36 inches or larger in diameter now require a variance in order to be removed in unincorporated New Hanover County.
Regardless of a tree’s classification, it can be removed in city limits if a developer pays for and obtains a permit to remove it or if it gets in the way of essential site improvements (stormwater, utility lines, parking features, or other impacts required by regulations to bring the project into compliance).
In November 2020, the city approved the county’s tree removal permit for the Healing Place. Its landscape plan includes replanting 112 trees and 654 shrubs.
City code calls for developers to plant or retain 15 trees per disturbed acre; the county disturbed 6.6 acres, with a replanting schedule of 17 trees per acre, above the minimum requirements, according to a city spokesperson.
Wilmington’s code also prescribes “nonselective clearing” motivated by expenses as an invalid reason for seeking to remove protected trees. “Every reasonable effort shall be made to protect and retain existing trees and shrubs not actually lying in planned roadways, drainage ways, building foundation footprints, and construction activity areas,” the code states.
According to the county, no tree was cut that wasn’t in harmony with city code.
“City staff reviewed and determined what was necessary and appropriate for the project in terms of any trees that were cut, and the county has followed that specifically,” a county spokesperson wrote in an email. “The site has a buffer of trees on three sides that has been protected, and the trees that were removed were necessary not only because they were in conflict with the building locations but to also regrade the entire parcel, which had significant elevation differences across the site.”
These actions were necessary to ensure the site was 100% accessible, the spokesperson continued, and to make sure buried utility lines were incorporated in an efficient manner. To date, construction is on schedule and about 35% done, with a projected completion date of May 2022, according to the spokesperson.
If the project was instead in the county’s jurisdiction, the county would have applied its tree retention standards, which similarly require significant trees to be replanted on site in accordance with a specific formula that accounts for the inches removed. The county also offers a payment schedule in lieu of replanting if the site cannot accommodate the additional plantings (the city also offers this type of arrangement). Funds paid into this account finance the county’s tree improvement fund.
Clearing the way
At the joint June council and planning commission meeting, planning commissioner John Lennon shared a developer’s perspective.
“The reality is, it’s cheaper for them to clear it,” he explained. “They’re spending exponentially more money to landscape it when the project is completed versus it would cost substantially more if they tried to work around trees that they wanted to save and put the same project in.”
(On the residential side, trees nestled in maintained landscapes have been shown to increase property value.)
“The irony in all of this is that consumers — commercial and residential consumers — pay more, when there’s more trees there. Period,” he said. “It’s proven.”
Developers want to save trees, Lennon continued, but they’re stuck working around and through them to accomplish their other goals.
“So I get the shell shock of seeing the street corner completely cleared,” Lennon said of the Healing Place site, “but I think it’s important to realize that part of the planning process is they have to have a landscape plan that’s approved.”
As a residential developer who sells prepped sites to regional and national builders, Steve Shuttleworth said there’s often not enough room to accommodate trees on dense projects. After tight setbacks, streets, and building footprints are accounted for, there’s barely any room to carve out space for an existing tree –– and that’s not including underground essentials.
“It’s all about grading and stormwater –– and lot size,” he said. “On residential subdivision development, where you have a large residential subdivision, the construction method is to clear-cut and over-lot grade.”
Over-lot grading is making sure all stormwater flows toward proper receptacles, Shuttleworth explained. “It means you’re basically reshaping the terrain so you can make the best management practice for stormwater,” he said.
Though his trade involves clear-cutting (more frequently in forested rural acreage designated specifically for that purpose), Shuttleworth is personally championing introducing tree-removal rules in Carolina Beach, where he serves as a councilman.
In general, shaping plans around significant trees typically happens before any permits are submitted, he said. Looking out for and making way for noteworthy trees is a normal part of the process, he said. “Most of the guys I know, developers I know in the region, we usually do that,” he said.
Below, view a rendering of the final plan for the Healing Place:
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