More than two years after the Environment and Energy Commission first complained about loopholes in Columbia’s tree-preservation ordinance, the Columbia City Council on Monday night will have the chance to approve or reject recommended amendments.
The first would alter penalty provisions of the law to base fines for violators on a per-acre rather than a per-tree assessment.
The tree ordinance first passed in 1991. Amendments in 1995 failed to adjust the penalty clause to match new per-acre assessments. Under the original law, city arborist Gene Busteed counted individual trees before and after development to determine whether developers were complying with a requirement that they destroy no more than 80 percent of the trees on a site (a requirement that has since been tightened to 75 percent). After 1995, aerial photos were used to approximate the destruction of climax forest, but this made prosecuting violators with a per-tree assessment difficult.
In order for the penalty to match the per-acre assessment, the proposed ordinance recommends that every 1,000 square feet of climax forest removed be considered a separate offense. As in the past, these violations would be punishable as Class A misdemeanors with penalties of $1,000 per 1,000 square feet of violation for individuals and $5,000 per 1,000 square feet of violation for corporations.
The proposed amendments also would establish restrictions on logging. While the existing ordinance prohibits clear-cutting, it does not include restrictions on the number of times people can return to a property to do commercial logging.
Karl Skala, vice chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission and a member of the Environment and Energy Commission, said that omission has allowed people to legally destroy nearly half a property’s trees during initial logging activity and then return later to cut down more trees without technically violating the city’s prohibition on clear cutting.
Clear cutting is defined as the removal of more than half of the standing climax forest on a property during the initial logging period.
Busteed said climax forest is one of two types of forest, the other being the invader, or old field, type.
“When people quit agriculture, trees such as the persimmon or honey locust grow up in empty fields. These are not structurally sound and have short lives,” Busteed said of the climax trees. “People want to save the climax forest species because it can replenish itself.”
The proposed amendments define logging as the removal of more than three trees for commercial purposes in an area greater than one acre. The changes also state that a logging plan demonstrating compliance with the 25 percent tree preservation requirement and detailing the logging area must be submitted to the city. Each logging activity will require a separate land disturbance permit.
Under the current law, if someone is going to use a bulldozer for logging, a land disturbance plan that includes a tree preservation plan must be drafted by a licensed engineer and submitted to the city to show that they won’t scarify, or erode, the soil. If traditional logging equipment is used, however, soil erosion is not an issue and a land-disturbance plan need not be submitted, Busteed said.
“It’s embarrassing when I receive calls about logging going on that I don’t know about,” Busteed said.
While the proposed ordinance may solve the city’s tree preservation problems, no tree regulations exist for the county.
“Once you jump outside the city limits, you can tear any tree down that you want,” Busteed said. “At Lake of the Woods, people tore down a whole strip of white oaks. People were mad, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”
In January 2003, the City Council decided that four of six original recommendations sent from the Environment and Energy Commission should be set aside because they were more complicated and controversial. These four recommendations included the study of further tree-preservation measures, such as providing developers with incentives for preserving trees and encouraging the use of center islands in streets as part of the 25 percent tree preservation rule.
Skala said the Environment and Energy Commission also expressed concern about inner-city “heritage trees” that should remain a part of downtown Columbia. This would likely have to be a separate ordinance.
Skala said he’s pleased that the council has taken up the amendments.
“We need to start a fire under some of these folks,” he said. “No one wants to touch this issue because it’s a hot topic and controversial. Some developers may be unhappy with the changes, but the changes are meant to benefit the whole community, not just the individual.”