Monday, September 3, 2007

Me And That Tree

Jim Schlosser reported in this morning's paper that the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission denied First Presbyterian Church's request to cut down a tree in order to increase the number of spaces in a parking lot.

[C]ommission member David Wharton said, the panel "simply cannot buy the destruction of that tree."
Jim's story will likely provoke outrage in some quarters about regulatory overreach in the historic districts, but he left out one thing that I think is crucial to understanding why the Commission made its decision: the Historic District Guidelines. According to state law and city ordinance, it's the Commission's job to enforce them, whether we agree with them or not.

Here's the relevant guideline from the section about new parking areas (p. 30):
9. Incorporate existing large trees and shrubs into the landscaping for new parking areas when possible.
My judgement of First Presbyterian's parking plan was that incorporating the Willow Oak in question was certainly possible, even though it would reduce the amount of space for parking. Had the guidelines said "convenient" instead of "possible," I would probably have voted differently. But it would have been capricious and unfair for us to disregard our own guiding document in this or any other case.

First Presbyterian did a great job of working with the neighborhood and the Commission on the rest of the plan [link], which -- except for this one detail -- was outstanding. I hope they'll continue to do so on future projects.


Anonymous said...

I am troubled when the city staff and even the city forester thinks a plan is good but the board doesn't. Seems like if church worked with city staff to design the plan that by definition they tried to incorporate the tree into the plan "when possible."
Would the commission ever vote to allow removal of a tree this size? If the honest answer is "No" then it's not the guidelines which are being followed.

David Wharton said...

There are many circumstances when removal of trees is permitted or desirable, for example when they're diseased. I've voted for tree removal in the past when circumstances warranted and the guidelines permitted.

In this case, though, the healthy 23"-trunk tree was located near the corner of the lot. Retaining the tree would reduce a 63-space lot by perhaps 4-6 spaces. Retaining the tree would not give First Presbyterian the absolute maximum number of spaces, but it was certainly possible to keep the tree and still have a spacious and functional lot.

There is no pleasure in causing the frustration that comes from denying an application, but I honestly just couldn't see any other interpretation of the relevant guideline. And whatever the opinions of the city's forester and HPC staff (all of whom I respect), it's the Guidelines that all residents of the historic districts have a right for the commissioners to abide by. We can't just make it up as we go along.