*This story has been modified to correct the name of Crockett Engineering Consultants and to clarify its role in the Aspen Heights development.
COLUMBIA — The future home of Aspen Heights is a busy place these days. Dozens of construction workers are scattered about the site, hammering together the frames of structures that soon will be student apartment complexes. Heavy machines are flattening much of the earth, while mounds of dirt fill the spaces between the buildings taking shape.
But there's something conspicuously missing from the land that used to be home to Columbia Regency mobile home park.
The trees are gone.
Columbia Regency, which closed after its owners sold the trailer park to Aspen Heights, featured hundreds of oak, hickory and walnut trees before the development of student apartments began. The removal of those trees prompted a complaint to the city by Ken Midkiff, conservation chair for the Osage Group of the Sierra Club. Midkiff asked the city to issue a stop-work order on the project, believing there had to be a violation of the city's tree preservation ordinance.
Not so, city officials say. Although inspectors found no violations of Columbia's tree ordinance on the site, the situation has prompted the staff and the Columbia City Council to consider revising the ordinance to prevent similar problems in the future.
The city's tree preservation ordinance requires that developers preserve a minimum of 25 percent of any climax forest on a site. A climax forest is defined as "a woodland community" of more than 20,000 square feet that is dominated by species, such as oak, hickory, maple and bottomland hardwoods.
Midkiff filed his complaint on Oct. 8, saying Aspen Heights violated the ordinance by failing to set aside the required number of trees.
"It's really sad," Midkiff said. "It used to be a fairly verdant area. Some trees were 50, 60 and 70 years old, and they were mowed down."
In a report to Community Development Director Tim Teddy, however, city officials said the site contained very little climax forest.
"Prior to the land disturbance activities associated with the Aspen Heights development, the tract was not a woodland community but rather a mobile home community with some big trees," the report said.
Midkiff said he is unhappy that the developers decided to cut down so many trees. He recalled that Columbia Regency was home to a closed canopy of trees that now is gone.
“I was appalled,” he said. “I remember how it was when it was the Regency Mobile Home Court. There were oak, maple, hickory and other large shade trees, but they were callously cut down by Aspen Heights."
These days, plastic erosion fences separate barren earth from the small amount of vegetation that remains on the fringes of the site. Most of the remaining trees line a small creek near Nifong Boulevard.
Midkiff said he believes 10 acres of trees should have been preserved, but he estimates Aspen Heights set aside less than one acre on the 40-acre plot.
Crockett Engineering Consultants developed the site plan for Aspen Heights. Owner Tim Crockett said the company and the project are in full compliance with the tree preservation ordinance, which includes no provisions for protecting individual trees.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” Crockett said, adding that he worked with the city arborist to determine which trees in which areas needed to be preserved.
Crockett said there are plans to plant more trees on the site as construction continues.
“We plan to plant back numerous times over the ones we tore out,” he said. “In several years, it will be forested again. It’s not like we’re going to leave this place like it is. The trees will be replaced."
The situation has city officials considering revisions to the ordinance that would help protect individual trees. The City Council expects another report on the matter in February.
One idea, according to a Monday report from Teddy to the council, is to limit the amount of climax forest within a utility easement that can be counted toward the minimum 25 percent that must be preserved. The fear is that developers might conserve trees in those easements, only to see them cut down later by the city or another utility later.
In residential developments, Teddy wrote, the council could consider whether to require that all or at least part of any climax forest preserved be on common ground rather than on residential lots. As the ordinance is written now, trees preserved on residential lots can be cut down during actual construction even if they are preserved during early site preparations.
The staff report to Teddy also suggested the ordinance could be amended to include protections for significant individual trees.
Monta Welch of the Columbia Climate Change Coalition said strengthening the ordinance would be a good thing to do.
"Citizens are upset about the removal of the trees, and a lot of old trees were taken out," she said. "There are so many reasons to become aggressive in saving the trees. They absorb carbon and make the community beautiful."
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said she supports potential revisions and asked for a report with recommendations to preserve non-climax and heritage trees.
Crockett, however, said the ordinance is fine as it is.
“If we want to preserve individual trees, we won’t be able to develop on some sites,” he said. “It can really hamper development if the ordinance is changed.”
Midkiff said he would like to see the city require that developers preserve 25 percent of any trees with a diameter of 12 inches or more.
“If the current tree ordinance allows what Aspen Heights did, it’s meaningless,” he said. “They didn’t preserve anything. It is a barren wasteland.”
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