A tale of two cedars: Greensboro City Council has mixed environmental record

by Amy Kingsley

On March 21, 2006, George Sipsis came to the Greensboro City Council with a problem. Sipsis, the owner of Oak Crest Shopping Center on Battleground Avenue, had been fined by the city for failing to plant two trees required after a small expansion attracted the attention of the city’s planning department.

Sipsis argued that planting the two trees in the parking lot, which is what he was required to do, instead of planting them in the city’s right-of-way, which is what he wanted to do, would cost him two parking spaces and customers during the daily lunch rush. Oak Crest, a small shopping center anchored by Fleet-Plummer, is home to the Oak Crest Family Restaurant and Lox, Stock and Bagel, a popular deli.

Sipsis’ son Jimmy turned to his friend on council, District 4 representative Mike Barber, who suggested a solution. Barber, who turned the city’s Tree Preservation Ordinance and urban forester into targets during his 2005 campaign, suggested amending the policy to allow certain businesses, Sipsis’ in this case, to plant required trees in the right-of-way.

Council member and reliable conservative Tom Phillips emerged as an unlikely defender of the ordinance. Sipsis, as it turns out, was aware of his obligation to plant two trees, but his builder simply hadn’t done it. Phillips balked at writing an amendment to cover the contractor’s error.

The initiative failed; only four of the eight council members present agreed that the ordinance should be amended. Councilmember Florence Gatten was absent that night, but said she watched the tape later and would have voted with the majority. In her opinion, she said, the next logical step would be to expand the protections in the tree preservation ordinance, not to weaken them to accomodate business owners.

“Tree preservation right now relates only to commercial development,” she said. “With residential development you still have the clear-cutting, and that’s the next battle that has to be fought.”

Greensboro adopted its Tree Preservation Ordinance on Oct. 17, 2000. The unanimous approval by council included yea votes by sitting council members Sandy Carmany, Yvonne Johnson, Tom Phillips and Mayor Keith Holliday. Carmany said significant input on the ordinance came from city staff and representatives of the real estate industry.

“What is on the books is sort of a compromise position,” Carmany said.

During the debate on the Sipsis amendment, Carmany defended the tree ordinance, and warned that allowing exemptions paved the way for abuse. She sided with Phillips, Goldie Wells and Mayor Holliday to maintain the ordinance as is.

The city council’s environmental record is as divided and unpredictable as the failed 2006 motion to prune the tree ordinance. Issues tackled by the council have included funding for public transportation, watershed protection, greenway preservation, bicycle and pedestrian facilities and, of course, trees.

In the early 1980s, Gatten got involved with a campaign promoting a $75 million bond to buy the land surrounding Guilford County’s drinking-water reservoirs. When she ran for city council in 2001, she made environmental protection a centerpiece of her campaign.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” she said.

In the last two years, the city council increased taxes to fund expanded public transportation, approved a bicycle-pedestrian plan and supervised the opening of a waste transfer station. The local Sierra Club’s Cool Cities Group is lobbying the council to sign the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, a document stating the city would reduce its carbon emissions in alignment with the Kyoto Accords, an effort that’s been well-received by most of council.

But Greensboro faces a number of environmental challenges. The entire Piedmont Triad region is in danger of being sanctioned by the Environmental Protection Agency because of its poor air quality, and the Triad was dubbed the second most sprawling in the nation according to Smart Growth America. And wastewater from the Greensboro area has been implicated in nutrient pollution in Jordan Lake, a downstream reservoir.

Gatten and Carmany, who have been among the most progressive environmental voices on the city council, said the Triad’s poor air quality is among the biggest problems facing the city. The city, which is participating in an early action program with the EPA to avoid sanctions, is on track to comply with standards for ozone and particulate matter.

But the EPA recently released a statement that it is considering lowering the standards to levels the Triad would not meet. If the region fails, counties will lose federal highway funds and the ability to lure heavy industry to the area.

“That’s the one thing people are not willing to listen to here,” Gatten said. “People have just turned a blind eye to the air quality issue. It’s not something that people are willing to come to grips with.”

High gas prices have driven up demand for bus service. The city logged 3 million riders last year, Gatten said, and this year the transportation department anticipates adding 700,000 more. The Summit Avenue route needs another bus to handle overcrowding during rush hours.

“I would like, of course, to see employers take more of a role to provide incentives for employees,” Gatten said. “I would like the city to take a look at carpool lanes.”

Barber disputed some of the air quality data presented by the EPA, and said the rules written to curb pollution in Jordan Lake are based on bad science. He said federal efforts to improve air quality are what is needed, particularly a stronger emphasis on nuclear energy. As for the Jordan Lake rules, he said he’s worried they will exact too much from ratepayers.

“The cost of addressing some of these overly stringent watershed rules, all of that is passed onto the consumer,” he said.

Barber opposed funding a pilot program at the TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant for a purification system designed to comply with the new rules. He was the only member of council who opposed the proposal. Barber was also the only council member to oppose signing a contract with Republic Services to operate the waste transfer station on the grounds that the city shouldn’t be closing the White Street Landfill to garbage. Neighbors from the Mt. Zion community lobbied for decades to have the landfill closed, crediting higher rates of cancer and other diseases to its presence.

Barber opposed both efforts on the grounds that city council had not fully evaluated the costs of its decisions. Both times he was overruled by a majority of eight.

Barber said the city did not fully evaluate the costs of expanding public transit to 30-minute service, and he did not vote for the 2006 budget that included the increase.

He is still opposed to having an urban forester, the person whose job it is to approve and inspect trees in a new non-residential development.

“A strong economy and a great deal of construction can be harmonious with protection of the environment,” Barber said. “Making things green can put green in your wallet.”

Joel Landau, a member of the planning board and the Sierra Club, said the council’s interest in policies meant to protect watersheds and open space has been minimal. Phillips is the liaison to the board, Landau said, but he has never seen the councilman at a meeting. Other members of the planning board have expressed little interest in preserving open space or protecting watershed, Landau said.

“What comes up on the planning board sometimes is this idea that we have to leave it to the market to say what the highest use of the land is,” he said. “Well, we’ve already rejected that idea when it comes to lakes and other sensitive areas.”

Landau is part of the coalition urging the council to sign the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. The initiative was shelved during budget negotiations, and he is eager to see it back on council’s agenda. Barber said he supports the concept, but that he’d like to see some of the language altered. Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, who is a staunch supporter of developers, is on the fence, but Mayor Holliday supports the effort wholeheartedly.

More than a year after they lost at council, the Sipsis family has indeed planted two trees in the Oak Crest Shopping Center parking lot. The two saplings spring from squares of mulch where asphalt used to be. The two fledgling canopy trees, small as they might be, could be harbingers of Greensboro’s future.

“I feel happier about the [tree ordinance] now than I ever have before,” Gatten said. “The attention that has come to global warming and carbon footprints has finally made people pay attention to this.”

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