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CPC looks at zoning law changes

Focus on landscaping and tree conservation

Posted: March 8, 2012 3:44 p.m.
Updated: March 9, 2012 5:00 a.m.

The Camden Planning Commission (CPC) spent nearly 90 minutes at its Feb. 28 meeting discussing possible changes to the city of Camden’s zoning ordinance, specifically in terms of landscaping and tree preservation -- a term that was ultimately rephrased as tree conservation.

It was the second in an ongoing series of sessions the CPC has conducted with Cheryl Metheny, of Lexington’s Metheny-Burns Group, and Carol Rhea of Orion Planning Group (OPG). OPG is a Boulder, Colo.-based firm with locations in Urbana, Ill.; Hernando, Miss.; and Rhea’s Huntsville, Ala, office. In January, Metheny and Rhea assisted CPC members in understanding how a zoning/building code system called SmartCode could be incorporated into Camden’s existing zoning ordinance. SmartCode was developed by Duany Plater-Zyberk, a firm the city hired in 2008 to come up with a vision plan for downtown Camden. At one time, Camden considered adopting a version of the SmartCode as a replacement for downtown zoning.

Metheny began this portion of the CPC’s February meeting by going back over some of those elements. She said CPC members decided to simplify Camden’s zoning ordinance, including making sure that more easily understood words and terms are used. More specific decisions, she said, included keeping basic SmartCode concepts: making downtown more user-friendly, fostering mixed-use buildings and providing opportunities for people to live downtown. The CPC also made a decision in January not to have changes focus on downtown exclusively, but to see how SmartCode concepts could be incorporated into the city’s zoning districts.

The idea, Metheny said, is focus on interests, not positions.

“What is the public purpose?” Metheny rhetorically asked of any ordinance. “Don’t regulate more than you can politically and financially afford. If we write something in the code and you, as commissioners, don’t understand it … then we need to rewrite it.”

Following the review, the group moved on to talking about Camden’s focus on trees.

“What do you want to do? Preserve existing or significant trees? Replace trees? What are your goals? The current regulation is really focused on replacing trees,” Metheny said.

Commissioner Jim Burns said he wanted to make sure the importance of trees to wildlife is noted somehow.

“We’ve got these parks; we shouldn’t really take all the dead trees down,” Burns said.

Burns said he was worried that taking down all the dead trees in Kirkwood Common, for example, would leave certain birds, such as the redheaded woodpecker, without the habitats they need to flourish.

“That’s interesting to me: how to factor in wildlife that actually thrives on dead trees,” he said, “but I know those kind of trees can also be dangerous. Consideration of wildlife is how I would look at it.”

Commissioner Joanna Craig noted that while parks “create one vista” for trees, a single residence or a neighborhood has a different relationship to trees.

“We need a balance and a mixture. Parks have a different place in our lives compared to neighborhoods. We are a tree city, and we have a historic tree,” Craig said, referring to the Lafayette Cedar in front of the Kershaw County Courthouse.

Metheny and Rhea reviwed the city’s current zoning ordinance, concluding that it states intents for both landscaping and buffer areas.

“Where we got a little uneasy is where ‘landscaping’ includes buffer information,” Metheny said. “Buffers may lend themselves to the aesthetic of landscaping, but they’re really two different things and need to be treated that way.”

As for tree protection, the stated intention appeared to be to prevent clear cutting.

“And yet the ordinance doesn’t meet that intent,” City Planner Shawn Putnam said; Putnam is the CPC’s secretary and adviser.

“Your job is to recommend to us what language to take to council,” Rhea said. “You want to prevent clear cutting, but you need to offer some options so that a property owner may not be totally hamstrung and we have some ideas about that. Note that the stated intent has nothing to do with protecting trees except in terms of clear cutting.”

Pointing out that Camden residents have very strong feelings about trees, Craig said she would count on Camden Urban Forester Liz Gilland to tell her whether a particular tree needed to be cut.

“If she told me we needed to clear cut something, I would probably think about it, whereas before I would have said ‘over my dead body,’” Craig said.

Gilland attended the Feb. 27 meeting.

The consultants asked whether the city’s landscaping regulations accomplish what commissioners want. The commissioners said no.

“I think much more can be done with landscaping,” Craig said. “Look at our history. There is a look not only to our buildings, but to our trees … that can be pulled together to create a concept we’re trying to sell. There are ways to pull it all together. If we look downtown -- with more use of flowers, trees and shading -- so that this says, ‘This is our town.’ It’s very different than coming into a cold, austere place.”

Craig said she believed some type of benchmark should be established as would be done in marketing.

“If we believe we’re the oldest inland town in the state, then what do we do in all areas, including landscaping? Instead of coming into town and seeing (various organization signs), it could be a whole package we could be working with,” Craig said.

CPC Chairman Bill Ligon said he wanted flexibility that would work for both Camden and developers.

“With new developments, I wouldn’t want them to remove significant trees just at random, but I don’t want to create a hardship if a house needs to go right where a particular tree is located,” Ligon said.

Metheny and Rhea indicated there would be a way to include Ligon’s ideas into the process.

Strategies might include consolidating all landscaping requirements into one section of the city code of ordinances. Other ideas including revising requirements to ensure plant health; enhancing and improving roadways, parking lots, and developments; review/revising tree preservation to assist the city’s goals and objectives; and incorporating the city’s existing tree inventory for neighborhood expansions and new development and construction.

Another concept is to create “succession tree policy” where the city could identify trees that might need removal in the future and plan for their eventual replacement.

“Otherwise, the entire canopy could be wiped out,” Metheny said. “You’ll want to incorporate that into a landscaping plan and tree inventory review by Liz for flexibility.”

Ligon noted that the city of Forest Acres does not allow for the cutting of more than one tree per year on a residential lot. Ligon said he was not necessarily in favor of such a policy, but wanted to know how Camden could prevent a scenario where someone could cut down successive trees year after year.

“There are strong proponents for both sides,” Gilland said. “I actually helped them develop that ordinance. You have to get a permit. It’s not carte blanche for residential owners to take down trees.”

Putnam said the city would have to consider how enforceable such a police would be.

“What we’re doing by trying to protect trees during development is like putting all our eggs in the basket up front,” Rhea said. “It’s incredibly expensive. I don’t think you need to go to the extreme of having permits -- many developers are coming in with restrictions.”

“Exactly,” Commissioner Brandon Moore said, “I don’t want clear cutting up front.”

Metheny asked commissioners what aspects of landscaping and tree protection did they want Camden’s ordinances to address, and called Gilland a “huge resource.”

“But what if we don’t have one?” Ligon asked, meaning what if Camden did not have an urban forester.

“Or one not as experienced?” Craig asked.

Metheny suggested ensuring Gilland’s urban forester functions are built into the processes -- that, for instance, tree inventories are conducted and reviewed. Metheny and Rhea also suggested there may be times when someone comes up with an idea even Gilland hasn’t heard of, requiring flexibility within the code to deal with such situations.

Gilland said there are three areas she usually deals with when it comes to landscaping: deficient design, plant quality and size, and installation and maintenance that is not adequate to ensuring the planting’s long-term sustainability.

“Landscape doesn’t always accommodate for long-term growth,” Gilland said. “How long do shrubs live versus trees? We need to remember that they grow in both diameter and height, but designers and landscape planners want the ‘wow factor’ now.”

Another problem, Gilland said, is planning for more plants than are either needed or can be properly maintained. She also mentioned plant quality and size, where transplanted trees or shrubs are often substandard, root-bound or “wounded.

“Trees expand in size and shape. You have to realize that even though you might plant a required 5-foot-tall tree, it will grow -- and faster than you think,” Gilland said, reminding commissioners to think in terms of how the trees will mature versus their planting size. “Studies show large trees go through transplant shock for five years versus smaller trees that can get used to an area. Appropriate irrigation is also key; that needs to be planned for and required at least for the first several years.”

Gilland’s approach is one of “right plant, right location.”

“You don’t put an Evergreen in front of a front window,” Gilland said, and presented a series of photographs of good and bad examples of tree plantings.

Bad examples included the wrong types of trees under power lines and planting large trees in small spaces. A good example, from the town of Eloree, was of a median, away from power lines, with a “pop of color” of flowers along with widely spaced large trees.

It was during this part of the discussion that the term “tree conservation” came up as an alternative to the current zoning ordinance’s verbiage of tree preservation.

“We know that plants are living things, so we can’t really preserve them,” Gilland said. “When I hear the word ‘preservation,’ I think of buildings. We can’t stop time with living things. We can conserve the number of trees, but we can’t preserve them in perpetuity.”

She suggested tree conservation could be seen through five phases of construction: planning, design, pre-construction, construction and post-construction.

“If not done appropriately at any stage, you can seal the fate of the tree. It’s always a latent effect of construction damage -- sometimes three to five or even 10 years after the initial impact,” Gilland said.

Why?

Gilland said treating trees the wrong way can impact a number of environmental and other factors, such as water retention, air purification, wildlife, energy conservation, quality of life, storm water abatement and property values.

Putting a tree in a parking lot or having tree shade over a HVAC unit can help.

“Even a few degree can make a difference,” Gilland said.

Metheny, Rhea and Gilland said the next steps in this regard are to create a list of approved trees and other plants for landscapers and developers; developing references to industry standards and best management practices for plant stock quality, installation and protection; and creating a list of appropriate trees to use for certain applications.

Commissioners appeared to like the change from “preservation” to “conservation” when it came to trees.

“We’ve been floundering without tree conservation since I’ve been here,” Ligon said.

Craig liked the idea of having pieces of literature that developers and others could look at regarding what they can do regarding trees and other vegetation.

“It defuses situations,” Craig said. “When we were having problems, there was no education.”

Craig did say she would like to see the ordinance reflect the need for complimentary commercial versus residential requirements when it comes to trees.

The CPC will next meet March 20 at 6 p.m. Its next areas of focus in the zoning ordinance will be on buffers and setbacks.

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