COLUMBIA – A vacant lot across the street from the Women's and Children's Hospital sits between a small creek bed lined with lofty oaks and an old parking lot covered with towering piles of dirt.
The site's developer has put together a plan to replace the wooded area with a parking lot for a planned office building. In exchange for cutting down the trees, Trittenbach Development would preserve a stretch of forest along a rocky hillside above Grindstone Creek several miles away.
But the trees off of Keene Street across from the hospital are protected under the city’s land preservation code. The new proposal is causing the city to re-evaluate not only what will happen to these trees, but also how urban forests could be preserved in the future.
The question is whether developers can cut down climax forests, or forests that have never been disturbed by development, that are currently protected in exchange for preserving stretches of forest in another part of the city. As it stands, the city’s plan requires that 25 percent of all climax forest of more than 1 acre must be preserved during new development.
“We don’t take this lightly,” said Tim Teddy, director of the Columbia Department of Planning and Development. “Off-site mitigation is a last resort, but it might be appropriate if preserved trees are not connected to a system of natural resources.”
Trittenbach Development’s original plan for the Keene Street location included a 57,600-square-foot office or medical building, a five-story parking garage and a 0.69-acre stretch of preserved forest. In December, a revised plan was submitted to city planners. The new plan featured no parking garage and recommended removing all of the trees to accommodate surface parking. It also introduced the offer of preserving the forest along Grindstone Creek.
Trittenbach Development could not be reached for comment.
After briefly discussing the plan at its Jan. 18 meeting, the Columbia City Council directed its staff to develop an off-site mitigation plan to handle similar tree preservation issues at all development projects — not just the Keene Street project.
Karl Skala, vice chairman of the Columbia Environment and Energy Commission, said he sees allowing developers to exchange tracts of forest as a way to protect sections of urban forest that are valued by the community but are not presently preserved.
“You can identify a tract of land that several developers will contribute to, and you may wind up with a piece of property that is sustainable,” Skala said. “That’s the promise that this has and what I’d like to see happen.”
In theory, developers could purchase and preserve parcels of the forest in exchange for more intensive development on other land.
Skala, who worked on tree preservation when he served on the council, points to the Berrywood Forest in east Columbia as a possible site for protection. Berrywood is an 11-acre stretch of old-growth forest in east Columbia that neighbors are working to protect from development.
Teddy was quick to list off the values he sees in preserving trees during development.
“Trees have multiple functions in our natural systems,” Teddy said. “They stabilize soil, provide shade, moderate climate, act as nature's filters, provide aesthetic beauty, stabilize steep slopes; there are multiple reasons to preserve trees.”
Teddy points out that any plan will have to look at more than just an acre-for-acre land swap. Each proposal will have to measure the quality of the trees and land, current protection, the surrounding area and what guarantees there are that the forest won’t be disturbed in the future.
The Columbia Department of Planning and Development is reviewing data and will work over the next several months to modify the tree preservation plan.
“It all depends on how it’s going to work,” Skala said. “The devil is in the details.”