Dallasites know that the city’s natural beauty is not what brought us here or keeps us here. Dallas doesn’t have mountains or an ocean or any of the geographical features that commonly draw people to an area.
Dallas does have attractive places to live, though. The most desirable neighborhoods generally have one feature in common — big, beautiful trees, a green canopy that adds immeasurably to the quality of life in those neighborhoods.
In 1993, a task force began work at city hall to craft a tree preservation ordinance. The task force was composed of members whose primary goal was to protect large, old trees and preserve the tree canopy in Dallas, and other members whose primary goal was to have an outcome that wouldn’t hinder land development in the city. After more than a year of work, Dallas had Article 10 of the Development Code — the Tree Preservation Ordinance.
Some task force members felt that Article 10 was more of a tree replacement ordinance, with an emphasis on how to mitigate for trees that were taken down, where the small replacement trees could go, and how big a tree needed to be before it could be “protected.” There were lists of good trees such as red oaks and live oaks, and lists of bad trees such as hackberries and fruitless mulberries. The bad, or so-called “junk” trees, could be cut down at will and didn’t have to be replaced, no matter how big they were or how many of them there were.
Clear-cutting was allowed in the ordinance as long as mitigation measures were followed. During the past 15 years, there have been some egregious examples of clear-cutting: the Grady Niblo site along Mountain Creek Parkway, one of the prettiest areas in the city; the Pleasant Grove site of a new residential subdivision that, after all the trees were removed, was ironically named Enchanted Forest; and, more recently, the site at Skillman and Northwest Highway, formerly the Timbercreek Apartments, where there were lots of large trees and a beautiful creek that ran through the property. The creek is now in a culvert and the land looks like a moonscape.
There are other weaknesses and loopholes in Article 10 besides clear-cutting. Developers can ask for Planned Development District zoning to avoid the requirements of the tree ordinance. Developers who build new spec homes in existing residential neighborhoods are not required to water the trees on their lots either before or after the houses are built (unless the trees are required by the city as a “screen”). They can destroy any trees they want before they get a building permit. And when builders cement over tree roots to put in a foundation or a driveway, or place construction materials on top of the roots, the new homeowner, who has paid a premium for the large old trees on the lot, gets to watch those trees slowly die.
The single greatest weakness in the current tree ordinance, however, is in the enforcement provisions. City staff who enforce the tree ordinance requirements are unfortunately located in Development Services, which is the department at City Hall that encourages and fosters development in the city. That’s a glaring conflict. In several of the clear-cutting cases mentioned above, Development Services demonstrated a notable lack of will to enforce, which led to greatly reduced fines and reduced or ignored mitigation requirements. Tree ordinance enforcement personnel need to be located in a more tree friendly department like Parks.
A group of citizens and staff members — the Urban Forestry Advisory Committee — appointed by mayors Miller and Leppert, is currently considering revisions to Article 10. To learn more about the committee and the revisions, visit their website at www.DallasTrees.org. To comment on the current ordinance or the proposed revisions, contact UFAC member Bill Seaman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quality of life issues have generally gotten short shrift in Dallas, especially when they compete with development goals; Dallas’s mantra has always been to “keep the dirt flying.”
In a city with few natural resources, it would be good to protect the ones we do have.