A set of proposed changes to Cary rules would bring harsher punishment on those who damage protected trees without town approval, and some worry the changes could complicate development.
Cary already fines anyone who removes protected trees, including developers, construction companies, apartment and townhome property managers, businesses and residents. Along with the fines, Cary also requires violators to replace the trees under an extensive replanting plan.
But the Cary Town Council asked town staff to stiffen its punishment of violators last year after Amberwood Apartments in southeast Cary damaged more than 17,500 square feet of vegetation behind the complex – exposing it to drivers on Cary Parkway. The incident enraged some residents, including one councilman who said he wanted the management group to “feel the wrath” of the town.
Under rules proposed to the council on March 26, Cary would strengthen its tree replacement standards and raise tree removal fines. Individual home owners now would be exempt from any fine.
For everyone else, fines for entering a tree protection area would increase from $1,000 to $2,000. Fines for disturbing a protected tree area, which currently range from $2 to $4 per square foot, would be $4 across the board.
Instead of the town issuing a warning citation to people who severely prune shrubs, Cary would fine first-time violators $50 per shrub. The town would continue to fine two-time pruning violators $100 per shrub, but also would tack on an additional $1,000 fine under the new rules.
The proposal also calls for increasing the size and number of trees that violators are required to re-plant.
“It sends a message to the community emphasizing the importance of tree protection,” Mary Beerman, a Cary senior planner, told the council.
The proposal also changes the appeal process for violators. Instead of appealing a fine with the town manager and appealing the replacement before the Town Council, violators would appeal their case before Cary’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.
The council sent the proposal to Cary’s planning and zoning board for review and likely won’t vote on the changes for a few months.
Although no one spoke about the proposed rules at the recent public hearing, developers and one councilwoman expressed reservations afterward.
Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson suggested more work needs to be done to protect trees and well-intended developers.
“What we need to be thinking about are the unintended consequences,” Robinson said. She declined to take a stance until reviewing the proposal again and speaking with stakeholders.
Developers said the proposal would make construction more difficult and possibly more costly.
“If a mistake is made unintentionally, we or the contractor will be be penalized in greater fashion,” said Mike Hunter, a partner with Cary-based Wardson Construction.
“Accidents happen all the time,” he said. Hefty fines “ultimately impact our end user because the cost has to be passed on.”
Tim Minton, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County, said he worries that well-intended local developers could be punished “for the sins of a few.”
Cary last year fined Amberwood’s management company, Ohio-based real estate firm The Connor Group, more than $70,000 before scrapping the fine in October in favor of a comprehensive tree replacement plan. In the Amberwood violation notice, Cary staff noted that apartment managers showed “no concern” for violating town rules.
“It’s unfortunate that that’s the way we have to solve this problem,” Minton said. “Those who follow the rules – and we encourage all our members to do so – are the ones who may bear the brunt of it.”
Councilman Jack Smith, who represents southern Cary and called for stricter penalties, said the proposal is meant to clarify the town’s rules – not to complicate matters for developers or property managers who already follow it.
Prior to reaching a deal with the town to re-vegetate the area, Amberwood representatives criticized Cary’s procedure for levying penalties as “unintelligible and vague.”
“We were trying to clean up the ambiguity (in the rules),” Smith said.
“We’re not trying to say you can’t bring a tree down to build a house,” he continued. “We’re trying to make sure it’s not done in a willy-nilly fashion.”