Town leaders are poised to approve an overhaul of the way trees are removed in Cary as part of the development process.
The town currently prohibits developers from removing any tree bigger than 30 inches in diameter unless it is dead, diseased or in the way of proposed features that cannot be built elsewhere on a project site.
The Cary Town Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a proposal that aims to save more trees and give developers more flexibility by prioritizing the preservation of some trees over others depending on their size and location.
The council scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for Aug. 28 and will likely vote to approve the new rules at that time.
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The proposal loosens the criteria for trees to be considered “champion,” or especially valuable.
Most tall tree species would need to be more than 32 inches in diameter to gain champion status, while certain smaller trees such as dogwoods and redbuds would need to reach 15 inches in diameter.
Under the proposal, Cary staff would place top priority on saving champion trees that are in prominent locations, and groups of champion trees.
Prominent locations include major roadways, alongside buildings and within 20 feet of a greenway buffer or property line.
Developers would still need permission from the Town Council to remove champion trees that aren’t dead, dying or in the way of important project features.
Developers would also be required to hire a certified arborist to survey every champion tree that may be affected by development.
But Cary would reward developers who save more trees – champion or not – than the town requires. For instance, the town would consider reducing the required number of parking spaces for commercial developments by up to 25 percent if developers preserve more trees than the rules require.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the council also agreed to allow developers to reduce interior buffers if they save champion trees elsewhere on the project site.
“To me, that’s not a big deal,” Councilwoman Lori Bush said in reference to interior buffers.
The proposed changes are “much better” than Cary’s current rules but not as good as they could be for developers, said Suzanne Harris, vice president of governmental affairs for the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County.
“I have concerns that it’s going to be a much more time-consuming process, and time is money for the developers,” said Harris, who attended the council’s work session on Tuesday.
Requiring developers to hire a certified arborist may also create tension between property sellers and potential buyers, according to one developer who declined to be named.
Some landowners may want potential buyers to commit to investing before allowing an arborist to conduct a tree survey that may devalue the property.
Harris and Cary council members said they worry that some residents will cut down champion trees on their property before attempting to sell it.
Town staff members monitor clear-cutting inside Cary’s limits and extra-territorial jurisdiction, known as the ETJ, said Ricky Barker, a senior planner for Cary. Landowners who are caught clear-cutting are restricted from developing the property for five years, he said.
“We’ve actually had several developments outside the ETJ who have done the survey and are saving the champion trees,” Barker said.
Harris was skeptical that trend will continue. Developers still have more freedom if champion trees aren’t in the way, she said.
“You really won’t know the impact (of the new tree rules) until this takes effect,” she said.