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Tree-save ordinance poses challenge on farmland

HUNTERSVILLE – If you have to save trees in the forest, and there is no forest, does it make a noise at town hall?

That was the question recently brought before the Huntersville Planning Board.trees

Cambridge Properties, which in 2008 won approval from the town to develop the Huntersville Market small-retail project at Prosperity Church and Eastfield roads, came back to the town now that construction is underway with a bit of a sticky wooden wicket.

Because the 28.5 acres involved was once farmland, there were only seven trees left on the property. According to Huntersville’s tree-save ordinance, at least 30 percent of a property’s “specimen trees” must be saved if it is to be developed. That comes to 2.1 trees, or, rounded up, 3 of them, according to documents on file with the Huntersville Planning Department.

“Tree-save is always an interesting question,” said Bruce Andersen, an outspoken 14-year veteran member of the Huntersville Planning Board and its chairman for the past half of that tenure. There was an obvious touch of ironic understatement in his voice.

The problem is the placement of those specimen trees on parcel 6 of the development. The ordinance defines specimen trees this way, with the word “caliper” meaning “diameter”:

“Any large maturing tree (elm, oak, maple, etc.) with a 24-inch caliper base or greater, or a small maturing tree (redbud, dogwood, cherry, etc.) with a 12 caliper base or greater.”

The developer says that only one specimen tree can be saved, in a buffer zone, under the development plan, according to documents filed by Charlotte-based landscape engineer Site Solutions. The papers were filed on behalf of Cambridge Properties and Novant Health, which will occupy parcel 6 with a one-story, 15,000-square-foot medical office building and contiguous parking lot.

In instances where there are not enough specimen trees – a process complicated in the case of Huntersville Market because there were so few trees to choose from – the town tree-save ordinance requires developers to mitigate the situation by replacing the specimen trees with new trees that have at least 2-inch diameters.

In the case of Huntersville Market, the developer went an extra mile – or, to be more precise, 4 inches – and offered to plant 6-inch-diameter trees. The developer will also comply with other parts of the zoning code by planting more new trees elsewhere in the development, as indicated in the site plan on file with the town.

Because the project is in a pocket of Huntersville contiguous with Charlotte that contains the Olmstead and McGinnis Village residential subdivisions, and because the project involves improving and extending state-maintained streets, and because the site has stormwater drainage issues, Cambridge Properties Vice President Jay Priester said getting approval for the  Huntersville Market was a long and complicated regulatory process. That’s one of the reasons it took five years to get the project going.

The tree-save business was the latest little bump on the road. A minor one for the developer. Not so minor for Andersen.

“I’m a bit of a conservationist,” said Andersen, an electrical engineer preoccupied with exactitude. And with a sense of humor.

“And I’ve been trying to improve our tree-save ordinance – and by that I mean make it stronger.”

One of the issues Andersen has is the way ordinance orders the trees to be measured. He says that replacing a 10-inch tree with two 5-inch trees, for instance, doesn’t really add up in terms of area.

“If you have a 10-inch pizza, it is not twice the size of a 5-inch pizza, if you follow me,” Andersen said. “It’s a matter of πr2. But I’m digressing. You asked me what we as a board did in the Cambridge Properties mitigation request.”

“We approved their request by a unanimous vote, but we added a note that they would amend the soil.”

That means, Andersen said, that Site Solutions agreed to do everything possible with the soil and irrigation to “approach 100 percent survivability.”

“As my grandma taught me, you can’t just dig a hole in the clay the size of the root ball and drop it in and water it,” Andersen said. “The water hardens the clay and turns it into a clay pot, and it’s no good for the tree.

“What you do is dig a hole twice as big as the root ball, and you take the roots out of the burlap and loosen them up, and you fill in with good soil, and you’re careful with your irrigation.

“That’s the way my grandma taught me. But we don’t like to micromanage. Even if everybody says we do. We just said ‘amend the soil.’ They’ll know what that means.”


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