Hear from TreesUpstate regarding the City of Greenville’s tree ordinance update

September 29th, 2020

Joelle TeacheyWe recently asked Joelle Teachey, Executive Director of TreesUpstate, to weigh in on the City of Greenville’s current effort to update their tree ordinance. An update has been underway since 2018. 

Community feedback collected this past summer suggests that many feel the proposed draft ordinance does not go far enough in protecting what is left of Greenville’s tree canopy. 

To determine how best to move forward, city staff are planning to study and seek input on three “friction points” that have emerged related to the latest ordinance draft – private property in single-family neighborhoods, affordable housing, and the proposed fee-in-lieu system.

The city has launched a digital survey to gather community input regarding the three friction points. Click here for a direct link to the survey, and visit the city's web page to learn more about the tree ordinance update effort.

Also, see this excellent article by Eric Connor from the Post & Courier Greenville for background on the city’s efforts to date. 

Why is it so important for the city to update its tree ordinance NOW?

TreesUpstate, the City of Greenville, the SC Forestry Commission, and the Green Infrastructure Center are partnering on a project that includes mapping tree canopy and launching a tree-planting campaign.  

Tree canopy maps produced through the project indicate that since 2001 the City of Greenville has lost about 33 million square feet of tree canopy!

Trees provide public health, economic, and environmental benefits. Trees improve air and water quality. They provide shade, which keeps ground level surface temperatures cooler and helps prevent ground-level ozone from forming. Reductions of ground-level ozone help us stay in attainment of National Air Quality Standards. 

A reduction in tree canopy means a reduction in the benefits trees provide. What do you want our tree canopy cover to be in 2030? 2040? What does that look like, literally? Picture it in your mind.  

There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” The time is now.  Now is the time to plan and plant for the future.  

It is so important that residents let their voices be heard to help guide the tree ordinance update process. City Council and staff want to hear from residents! 

What are your thoughts on the role private property owners – specifically in single-family neighborhoods – play in protecting the city’s tree canopy?

Canopy maps show a significant reduction in tree canopy cover on private property over the last two decades. It’s critical that private property owners in single-family neighborhoods play a significant role in tree preservation because it is within those areas that we are seeing the biggest losses of mature tree canopy.

Tree protection in the city’s existing Landscape Ordinance is weaker than what’s in place in Charleston, Charleston County, Dorchester County, the Isle of Palms, James Island, Mount Pleasant, North Charleston, Sullivan's Island, Summerville, and the list goes on. These jurisdictions have adopted policies that protect trees on private property. Their policies are effective because they have staff in place to enforce them.  

Here’s an example: In Summerville, you need a permit to remove a healthy and structurally sound tree on private property if the tree’s diameter is greater than 6 inches. That doesn’t mean you can’t remove the tree to build a pool or expand your home's footprint. It simply means there is a mitigation plan in place so that when thriving trees are removed, trees are replanted. 

Remove a tree, plant a tree somewhere else — that’s a good goal.

Tree protection on private property includes encouraging innovative and creative solutions to work around critical root zones of large canopy trees as an alternative to removal and replacement. It also extends to protecting the health of the city’s canopy. Camden’s tree ordinance has limited applicability to private property too — it helps reduce threats such as pests and diseases.  

Many other comparable cities in the state and the region have passed tree ordinances with very clear language on how trees are protected on private property. Protecting trees on private property will help the city manage growth, while protecting its tree canopy. 

Affordable housing is a huge priority for Greenville right now. What is the best way to avoid undue burden to affordable housing providers and/or residents living in affordable homes, while ensuring that those residents get to enjoy the same benefits of trees that more affluent neighborhoods experience?

TreesUpstate has been focusing on equitable tree canopy since we launched our neighborhood tree planting program in 2008. Having trees in your yard should not be an indicator of demographics, and unfortunately, it is. 

The tree canopy maps produced earlier this year show a direct correlation between tree canopy, income level, and land surface temperatures. Generally speaking, low- to moderate-income neighborhoods have fewer trees and are hotter. Exempting affordable housing from tree protection measures will simply exacerbate this issue.  

Residents living in affordable homes need trees too, which is why TreesUpstate has planted thousands of trees in communities such as Brutontown, Nicholtown, Sterling, Poe Mill, and Freetown.  

The city is exploring and seeking input on how to address tree equity. Comparable cities have found creative solutions to not exempting affordable housing, while also creating and providing funding streams as incentives to avoid undue burden to affordable housing providers and residents.  

I recently spoke with Tina Belge at the Greenville Housing Fund and learned that 20% affordable housing is typically the minimum benchmark for incentives. That seems applicable here. Could a compromise be that if a new development is at least 20% affordable, it can apply for funding to help offset the costs of tree protection and/or replanting?

Finally, can you speak to the fee-in-lieu system being proposed in the draft tree ordinance?

We get benefits from mature tree canopy. Replanting a tree is great. Protecting a healthy, mature tree when possible is even better.  

The city’s current Landscape Ordinance doesn’t use a fee-in-lieu structure to discourage unnecessary removals and promote innovative solutions being used in other municipalities in our state and region. 

The proposed updates to the city’s fee-in-lieu structure encourage tree protection. Increasing this revenue stream with a strong fee-in-lieu structure will help the city mitigate past, present, and future canopy loss.

Comparable cities, such as Clemson, have fee-in-lieu programs that allow developers to pay a fee instead of replanting. Fees generated allow for tree planting elsewhere in the city. Such programs have been very effective in protecting and planting trees, preventing unnecessary removals, generating “Tree Funds,” mitigating tree loss, and funding arborist positions.  

Greenville has mentioned using Atlanta as a benchmark. That’s a good city to look at for how to structure a fee-in-lieu program. The Tree Funds generated in Atlanta have very clear percentage designations for funding arborists on city staff and tree plantings.  

There’s an opportunity here for Greenville.

Joelle Teachey has served as Executive Director of TreesUpstate for 13 years. She is an ISA Certified Arborist and a SC Certified Landscape Professional. The mission of TreesUpstate is to plant, promote, and protect trees.

Our Land Planning & Policy team will stay involved as the tree ordinance update process moves forward and will keep you informed every step of the way. Click here to receive updates and alerts for Greenville City and County land use planning and policy issues via email.


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