Environment

New tree ordinance could give Sacramento’s urban forest closer scrutiny

pkitagaki@sacbee.com

In the City of Trees, a new ordinance might put more bite in protecting our bark.

The Sacramento City Council may vote Thursday on hotly contested new rules for safeguarding, maintaining and removing trees on both private and public land. The vote follows two years of contentious negotiations that failed to bring consensus.

Backers of the new ordinance say it will add protections for about 25,000 trees now excluded from city purview and create a long-term plan for preserving the leafy canopy of 100,000 trees viewed as a defining characteristic of the city.

“Trees are utterly essential to our life here in Sacramento,” said Councilman Jeff Harris, who has led efforts to craft the proposal. “They are what make it livable here.”

Harris said a new ordinance is necessary to provide clarity and accountability in managing the urban forest and would replace a trio of existing laws that are out of date and don’t adequately address current challenges including development, disease and replacement.

The proposed ordinance would encompass trees in city parks, which are not covered by current ordinances, as well as streetside trees and those on city-owned land. It also updates rules for removal of trees.

The proposal would require a 15-day notice before city trees and some privately owned heritage trees could be cut down.

If passed, the ordinance would also create funding and regulations for replanting young trees when older ones are removed. The city now has no requirements for private property owners to replace trees, and the process for developers can be complex.

The proposal also mandates higher fines for tree scofflaws.

The plan would allow the city to pursue civil penalties ranging from $250 to $25,000 a day for violations such as removing a major tree without a permit or topping protected trees. It also makes it a misdemeanor to fail to treat Dutch elm disease when the city has tagged a tree on private property. Misdemeanors can result in six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Currently, failure to beat back the deadly fungus is an infraction.

Like most tree-related issues, the proposal is divisive.

Critics contend the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the canopy, it allows the city too much leeway in deciding which trees to cut, and needs more transparency and accountability.

Under the expiring ordinance, residents can protest tree removals to the Parks and Recreation Commission, but “the existing code is very confusing,” said Greg Smith, senior engineer with the department of public works.

“The new proposed ordinance is much clearer and more concise,” he said.

Under the new ordinance, the director of the Department of Public Works would decide appeals for most city removals involving everyday maintenance. Removals due to city construction projects could still be appealed to the City Council, he said.

Developers wishing to remove trees could appeal through the Planning and Design Commission or the council, depending on the size of the project. Private citizens with tree removal appeals could go before a hearing officer appointed by the City Council.

Members of Trees4Sacramento, a community advocacy group, say striking the park commission’s oversight could stack the deck in the city’s favor and want an independent arborist called in when disputes arise.

“You don’t want to have the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Luree Stetson of Trees4Sacramento. “Frankly, there’s a lot of mistrust.”

Stetson’s group is also concerned that the city’s tree canopy has been reduced over time. It wants the new ordinance to explicitly state that the city should consider how removing a tree would impact that umbrella of coverage.

Currently, the proposed ordinance focuses primarily on individual trees.

Harris said he planned to ask city staff to create an annual report on how the law is working and examine the possibility of creating a website that included tree removal notices and other information for greater transparency, another item that critics would like to see, if the law passes.

He added that the ordinance calls for the city to create a tree master plan to address policy issues such as canopy protections and ways to diversify tree species with ones more suited to the environment. While the city has a tree management plan adopted in 1994, Harris said it has never crafted an overall ideology when it comes to trees. He said creating that policy document is essential to the long-term protection of the city’s trees and would provide the additional accountability and transparency critics are calling for.

Harris said he expects robust debate on the proposed ordinance at Thursday’s meeting, but is hopeful it will pass.

Councilman Eric Guerra said he would call for discussion because he is concerned the proposed ordinance doesn’t address environmental justice issues regarding the dispersion of trees in the city.

Poor neighborhoods and those where a majority of residents self-identify as black, Asian or Hispanic in Sacramento have fewer trees than neighborhoods with higher incomes and less diversity, according to a 2015 study published in the online journal Plos One.

Of the seven cities examined in the study, Sacramento was the only one where minority neighborhoods had fewer trees across the board, said Kirsten Schwarz, assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University and lead author of the study.

But Schwarz found that income played a major role in tree coverage in every city studied.

“Where you have higher income, you have more trees,” she said. Schwarz said Sacramento’s arid climate could be a contributing factor to the disparity. In other cities studied including New York, Raleigh, N.C., and Baltimore, trees are able to grow with little human intervention, she said, popping up on vacant lots and untended land. But in drought-stricken Sacramento, growing trees requires maintenance and resources, which might be lacking in low-income neighborhoods, she said.

Guerra said the racial and economic disparity could affect a neighborhood’s livability and also the health of its residents, since trees are associated with cleaner air and parks where locals can recreate. Closing that disparity throughout the city is a priority, he said.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

Tree coverage and diversity

A 2015 study published in the journal Plos One found that Sacramento neighborhoods with high numbers of minority residents had less tree coverage.

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