Greensboro tree ordinance beginning to bud

by Eric Ginsburg

Greensboro moved a step closer to approving a new tree ordinance last week as a city council subcommittee meeting unanimously passed the stronger ordinance. Council will hold a public hearing and a formal vote on the changes — a compromise between residents’ demands, city desires and Duke Energy’s interests — at its regular May 21 meeting.

Council’s subcommittee and the residents in attendance on May 2 welcomed most of the changes, including modified tree trimming practices, increased communication, subcontractor oversight and the inclusion of private property, but a proposed appeal process hit a snag.

Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan and Mike Cusimano, the city’s urban forester, butted heads over tree limb removal, causing Vaughan to question whether appeals should go through his office. Duke and the city agreed that an initial trimming appeal would go to the urban forester, with the city advocating that a second appeal go before the city’s commission on the status of trees while Duke would like it to come before the NC Utilities Commission.

Cusimano said branch trimming would sometimes require a limb to be completely removed rather than cutting a third off the end — Duke’s general practice on the books — for the health of the tree, while Vaughan said aesthetics needed to be considered and that it should be up to the property owner.

Cusimano said homeowners shouldn’t be able to override biology and that he would be bound by professional standards in appeals. He said he has a professional responsibility to stick to trimming practices that would be most biologically sound for the tree, and Vaughan questioned whether the appeal should go to someone who was more of a neighborhood advocate.

“I was not happy with the answers I heard with the appeals process,” Vaughan said immediately after the meeting. Later Vaughan said she talked with Cusimano and that she believed council could make some smaller changes to the ordinance and keep the proposed appeals process.

“He explained to me that he is bound by these… standards and that if we wanted him to make other decisions we would need language in the ordinance to let him work outside those standards,” she said. “I think we have to have something that lets us look at aesthetics and to be able to make those decisions.”

On Monday Cusimano said he would need to review his responses to questions with the city manager’s office but he did not respond in time for publication.

Residents who spoke at the meeting thanked the council subcommittee for its diligence and attention to the issue.

The ordinance is a compromise between Duke Energy and the city and is designed to avoid litigation but the city and Duke could not reach an agreement on several issues residents brought up. The city is currently planning to ask the state utilities commission to rule on four of them including the appeal process.

The council will likely ask the commission to implement a more frequent trimming cycle to reduce the severity of each trim, rule on the appeal process, force Duke to remove large debris in residents’ yards and implement the company’s trim standards citywide.

Duke Energy submitted new statewide trim standards to the utility commission on April 30 that would implement stricter trimming standards and an approximate five-year trimming cycle around older, lower voltage lines in urban areas. The commission hasn’t approved the standards yet and there isn’t a timeline for approval, Duke spokesperson Davis Montgomery said, but Duke is already adhering to them and Montgomery said the commission didn’t have any major objections.

Duke Energy doesn’t plan to replace the older lines — which Montgomery said are perfectly functional — that primarily run through older neighborhoods in Greensboro like some of the ones where residents are frustrated about severe trimming that happened at the end of last year.

The city would like to expand those trimming standards to cover the entire city and for Duke to take responsibility for moving large tree debris to the curb for city pick up, Vaughan said. Montgomery said the trees are ultimately residents’ property and responsibility and that Duke doesn’t have the equipment to move large debris, and Vaughan said if Duke can’t move it then residents certainly couldn’t.

The need for large debris removal would likely decrease with the new trim standards, Montgomery said. In some cases Duke Energy has removed trees when cuts are severe enough to warrant it, but the ordinance will give property owners the option to keep the tree in almost all instances, Montgomery said, further decreasing debris removal needs.

Duke Energy opposes the plan for appeals to go from the commission on the status of trees after passing through the urban forester’s office because it wasn’t an impartial body like the utility commission, Montgomery said. Vaughan said she hoped the appeals process could be worked out with Duke within the ordinance rather than sent to the utilities commission separately, but Montgomery said discussions on the issue had already reached an impasse.

Despite the four areas where Duke Energy and Greensboro disagreed on ordinance changes, all parties seem to agree that the proposed ordinance represents a significant compromise and step forward in protecting the city’s tree canopy. The city and residents can claim numerous significant victories, Vaughan said.

“I think the biggest win that we can come away with is that for the first time private property is going to be protected,” Vaughan said. “[We] will be a model for the state [and] hopefully other municipalities will get it too.”

Greensboro modeled some of its changes after Raleigh’s tree ordinance, but even the capital’s doesn’t cover private property, Vaughan said.

While residents have emphasized that increased communication isn’t enough and Shah-Khan said it isn’t “the end-all-be-all,” the ordinance requires Duke to give residents 45 days notice, hold a community meeting within 30 days and notify residents again a week before trimming. Duke Energy also agreed to submit a trimming and maintenance plan to the city each year, giving the city a chance to review cuts beforehand, Shah-Khan said.

While the city will have to take up large debris removal separately, the ordinance solidifies Duke Energy’s commitment to chip and remove branches that are six inches in diameter or smaller, and in some cases eight inches in diameter.

Vaughan also emphasized that the subcommittee authorized a tree canopy overview study and a replanting program in conjunction with Greensboro Beautiful and Duke Energy. The city wants to avoid pitting residents or neighborhoods against each other for replanting in areas where trees have already been cut, Vaughan said, but the details and cost — including where the money will come from exactly — still need to be worked out.

The other council members on the subcommittee — Yvonne Johnson, Marikay Abuzuaiter and Nancy Hoffmann — agreed that the ordinance marked significant progress and vowed to stay concerned and aware about tree issues. Vaughan said the ordinance could be clearer, too.

“When you read the ordinance, it is confusing,” Vaughan admitted. “Maybe it will require a rewrite to make it easier to read but I think as people understand what we are trying to achieve, they should be pleased.”