Columbia City Council considers revising tree preservation ordinance

Saturday, December 8, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:01 p.m. CST, Monday, December 10, 2012
A patch of trees stands at Aspen Heights on Friday evening. Ken Midkiff, conservation chair of the Osage Group Sierra Club, filed a complaint with the City of Columbia against Crockett Engineering, which developed the site plan for Aspen Heights, because of the lack of tree preservation at the site. In response, the Columbia City Council is considering an ordinance revision regarding how much forest must be preserved on a land development.

*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.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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Michael Williams December 8, 2012 | 10:51 a.m.

I understand the attachment to trees. Gawd knows, I have enough of them.

But there are several things I don't understand about this particular article and the sentiment it portrays.

First, most of the "climax forests" in Columbia are in poor shape, as are the individual trees contained within them. Especially the big ones. They have not been taken care of, the woods are full of the invasive bush honeysuckle, the forest floors have not been periodically fired (resulting in tangled understories and no young, favorable tree replacement), there has been no harvest to leave space for native replacements, and there has been no forest stand improvements. We love our forests, yet don't take care of them.

Second, we're selfish. We all like to look at big trees, but fail to recognize those same trees are closer to death than birth. They are declining. Much better to harvest many of them and MAKE something from them...or even burn them in a fire place during a cozy winter...than leave them to decay for the next generation to worry about. In saving many of these trees, we show pure selfishness for our own current gratification and no consideration at all for those who come after.

Third, I like heritage trees, too, but sheesh how many of them do we need? Enough to satiate our selfishness?

Fourth, a city rule that keeps 25% of a climax forest is a poor rule. Twenty-thousand square feet is a square 141.4 feet on a side, and that's NOT a climax's a grove. And, for reasons stated above, not a good one at that.

Human occupation of natural space is a balance of direct human needs (i.e., a house) and the need for environmental space. This tension has been with us ever since we decided to walk upright, make stone axes and, most important, live in close proximity to one another. I remain astounded that those same people who promote high-density living (to save the environment) continue to put up impediments to that very same goal!

It's fine to have laws requiring a replant by developers. And, it's great if a developer can find a way to keep strategically-placed nice trees without harming their root systems during heavy equipment movement. But, we as a citizenry need to modify this unreasonable and selfish love for ALL trees and start making sane, scientific decisions about the ones we have space for AFTER we move in.

(Report Comment)
Matthew Schacht December 8, 2012 | 12:21 p.m.


I'm a reporter for the Missourian who leaves near the Aspen Heights construction. I enjoyed reading Michelle's comment and wanted to ask her a question.

Michelle said that Columbia's climax forests are in poor shape, because they are riddled with invasive species and lack proper harvesting.

I am not an arborist and know little about forestry, but I enjoy having old trees in my community. So I'd like to ask Michelle, what options are available to property owners for maintaining healthy trees?

I also have a question for the reporters of this story. Do we know what happened to the trees cut down at the old Regency mobile home park? Were they burned, used for lumber, etc?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 8, 2012 | 5:21 p.m.


First, it's Michael, not Michelle. I'm a "he".

Foresters and arborists can provide much information, much of it free. Showing you how to cut off limbs (yes, there's a right way and a wrong way), the right kind of tools, identifying desirable trees versus undesirable (walnut, pecan, most oaks, persimmon are good ones; elm, honey locusts (thorns) not so much), the right kind of tools to use, you can google "timber stand improvement" or "forest stand improvement" and learn much, or get the MO Extension book "Forest Management for Missouri Landowners", cut down every bush honeysuckle you can find and paint the stumps with Pathway herbicide, learn if poison ivy and grape vines are harmful to desirable trees (no, yes mostly), learn how many snag and dead trees to leave per acre for the critters, learn proper spacing needed for your trees, learn how and when to prune, learn about plot cruises and censuses, site indices, stand densities,....gosh, as the owner of 122 acres of forest and having planted 1000 walnut, pecan, tulip-poplar and oak trees of my own, I could go on and on.

Start with the MO extension book. It's a good one.

It's very unfortunate that Columbia's forests are NOT in good shape. We quit firing and harvesting long ago mainly because of feel-good tree hugger environmentalists who didn't understand a tree asset from a hole in the ground and told us cutting a tree was ALWAYS bad, especially if it is big.

As a community we care, yet we do virtually nothing...and now we have Columbia forests that, because of the invasives, are probably lost to all enjoyment except from outside their borders or on trails.

Take a woods tour with someone in the know. It'll take ca. 3 hours and you'll learn a lot.

(Report Comment)
Matthew Schacht December 8, 2012 | 7:03 p.m.


I'd would love to take a woods tour, but I don't anyone who offers them. If you know of someone, here's my email if you'd like to get in touch:

Sorry for the misreading your name.


(Report Comment)

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