Greenbacks vs. Green Space

A city official says harvesting trees on future Wal-Mart site breaks the spirit of the city’s tree ordinance
Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:53 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Landowner Bob Smith said he just wanted to harvest some trees.

Last fall, Smith and fellow landowner Hugh Stephenson hired a logger to chop down and sell a substantial number of trees on 53 acres along Grindstone Parkway. That land has since been approved by the Columbia City Council as the site of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter for south Columbia.

While Smith and Stephenson’s logging activities were not illegal, Karl Skala says they certainly were wrong. A member of the city’s Energy and Environment and Planning and Zoning commissions, Skala is spearheading an effort to revise the city’s tree ordinance. He accused Smith and Stephenson of violating the spirit of that ordinance, which is designed to preserve trees, primarily on development sites.

In an August e-mail to the Energy and Environment Commission, however, city arborist Gene Busteed said that while excessive logging might have occurred along Grindstone Parkway, his hands are tied.

“The Wal-Mart site on Grindstone Parkway has been destroyed but I can’t do a thin (sic) about it,” he wrote in the e-mail.

The problem at Grindstone Plaza is symptomatic of a larger one, said Skala, who thinks the city’s tree ordinance is full of holes that make preserving trees difficult and prosecuting violators nearly impossible.

“There is a problem, and there is a way to solve it,” he said.

There are two main loopholes in the ordinance that allow logging of trees to go largely unchecked.

The first involves a requirement that landowners get land-disturbance permits if they plan to use bulldozers to remove trees on more than an acre of land. Those permits, designed to protect valuable hardwood trees, say landowners must preserve 25 percent of any “climax forest” on their sites. A climax forest is a forest that has reached full maturity and whose mix of species tends not to change.

The ordinance, however, does little to address the type of logging that occurred along Grindstone Parkway. Logging requires no permit because it is not considered a land disturbance. Instead, the ordinance says a landowner cannot log to the point of “clear cutting,” or removing more than half of all trees on a site, regardless of their type.

Public Works Director Lowell Patterson explained. If a landowner has 100 trees on a site, and 49 are valuable trees such as oaks, he could log those 49 and sell them without a city permit, he said. Because none of the remaining 51 trees would be part of a climax forest, the owner could then get a land-disturbance permit and clear them all.

“That’s the loophole,” Patterson said. That allows clever landowners to clear their property without breaking the law.

The second loophole involves enforcement. Language in the ordinance makes violations difficult to prove, even when city officials believe they have occurred. Busteed said the ordinance requires that the arborist know the number of climax forest trees on a site ahead of time in order to determine whether 25 percent have been removed. That’s because violators are fined for each excess tree that is cut, instead of by the number of acres cleared.

Skala wants the loopholes closed, and he’s been fighting the city bureaucracy for more than a year.

“Everyone is passing the buck,” he said. “There’s no way to assess who (violated the ordinance), why they did it, when they did it — and that’s why the ordinance needs to be changed.”

In October 2002, Skala and the Energy and Environment Commission — with input from Busteed — asked the city council to amend the ordinance. Their proposal included changing the penalty portion from a per-tree to an acreage assessment.

When council members took up the matter on Jan. 21, City Manager Ray Beck told them city staff saw “no compelling reason to make changes at this point.” Nevertheless, the council referred two suggestions — one for the acreage assessment and another calling for steeper fines — to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The commission in April recommended the council adopt both changes. While the council asked city staff to draft the amendments, there has been no action since, Skala said.

Meanwhile, Skala and the Energy and Environment Commission have upped the ante. They believe logging on the Wal-Mart site also shows the need to require logging permits. The council decided earlier this month to consider the tree ordinance during a work session.

Patterson said part of the reason the council has not taken any action is there have been few problems. Most people, he said, are happy to comply with the ordinance. Few have exploited the loopholes.

“If one person did this, does that mean there’s a problem?” he asked.

Busteed conceded excessive logging seldom happens. “There isn’t a long history of doing this,” he said.

Typically, Busteed said, a landowner invites him to a site and asks him to designate the number of trees to be saved. Busteed also keeps aerial photographs that allow him to see trees on sites throughout the city. If landowners don’t invite Busteed to visit sites, however, they can log with impunity.

Busteed is at odds with Smith and Stephenson about whether that occurred at the Wal-Mart site. Smith said Busteed authorized the cutting.

“He said it was all right as long as we didn’t clear-cut,” Smith said. Stephenson refused to comment, and both landowners refused the Missourian access to the land.

Patterson, however, noted that Wal-Mart developer Aspen Acquisitions has applied for a land-disturbance permit so construction can begin. He said it’s likely that most of the trees that were removed would have had to be cut down anyway.

Patterson also said he thought one reason Aspen had to buy additional land was to meet the city’s requirement of preserving 25 percent of the climax forest. Aspen attorney Craig Van Matre, however, said the land was purchased not because of excessive logging, but because the city wants a road that would require more climax forest to be removed.

Van Matre also questioned the need for a tree ordinance at all.

“We say we don’t want any urban sprawl and then (the city) keeps pushing people farther out because you aren’t allowed to use the land you’ve got,” he said. “It’s just meddling for no good reason.”

Regardless of what happened at the Wal-Mart site, no one is being charged with any offenses.

While Patterson doesn’t think the ordinance is difficult to enforce, he conceded changes would make it easier.

“We have a good ordinance that’s probably better than most cities’,” he said. “The question is, do we want to do more with it?”

He emphasized that it’s not the city’s job to criticize those who find ways around the ordinance.

“If they want to circumvent the ordinance, you can’t condemn them there,” he said. “That’s our fault for not having something in place.”

“We don’t live in a world of ‘should have been,’ “ he added. “We administer the law the way it is, instead of the way it should be.”

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