Tree division seeks to make the enviro manual more user-friendly

Tuesday February 15th, 2022 by Willow Higgins

The Environmental Criteria Handbook, a rulebook used to help implement the city’s land use planning code, has not received a major update in the past decade. But best practice in urban forestry has since changed, and the manual is slow to reflect those changes. The Community Tree Preservation Division of the Department of Developmental Services is working to modernize the manual and make it a more useful tool for users to comply with city code. The group presents its third iteration of improvements manual over the past two years.

“We really try to emphasize clear language, meaningful content, that commissioners, the average Austinite, the end user – whether it’s a landscape architect or a home builder — can understand…so staff can do their jobs and ultimately the trees can be better protected,” said City Arborist Keith Mars.

Department employees are to propose three types of changes to the manual, which they presented to the Committee on the Environment in a recent briefing. Some of the changes are described below:

1. Removal of obsolete and inaccurate material:

  • Removed “significant tree criteria” from manual. Although this section of the manual was intended to assess the well-being of each tree, the section confused people, as it is never good practice to classify trees in terms of ‘significant’ or not. The group believes that manual users are better off without this section.
  • Removed “design constraints and alternatives” from manual. Arborists and those working to protect Austin’s trees are not responsible for finding solutions to design constraints. Architects and developers know how to design around trees themselves, the DSD presentation explained.
  • Removed a section on “corrective maintenance of trees”. There are two redundant sections on this topic and they are not consistent with each other, so the group proposes to remove one to consolidate the material.

2. Address new technologies, construction methods and urban forestry issues that have arisen since 2011:

  • Added a section on low impact excavation methods. Supersonic pneumatic tools have become essential in the tree industry since 2011, allowing digging around trees without damaging the roots.
  • Added rules and guidelines on how to build near trees without damaging the critical root zone.
  • Address certain tree species that can be removed without mitigation (which usually means planting another tree in its place). The group would like to call these trees “mitigation-free species,” rather than “invasive,” because what is technically considered invasive is tightly regulated by the state.

“This is a list of trees that, for one reason or another, our urban forest is better off if we prioritize their removal,” said Daniel Priest of the tree division.

The department would like to add the Arizona ash to this list of trees. “They have a really bad reputation,” Priest said. Many of these trees are already in unhealthy or dangerous condition from last year’s winter storm. They’ll also likely be killed by an invasive beetle that’s expected to come to town in the next few years, which may become a public health concern. It’s better to remove them safely, Priest said.

3. Reorganize and rewrite existing content in the manual to better align with the code:

  • These changes primarily make the rulebook easier to read and navigate, and improve writing style and spelling.
  • They also propose additional ways to incentivize the preservation of native tree stands, by adding qualification criteria for mitigation alternatives (such as payment into the urban forest recovery fund) and adding a requirement to mitigation diversity so that planted replacement trees diversify the urban forest.

The environmental commission took note of the changes and raised questions about the city’s tree preservation policy and the process for changing the rules.

“I’m really curious to know why the rewriting of the Environmental Criteria Manual is being done by the Department of Developmental Services,” said Commissioner Pam Thompson.

“The Community Tree Preservation Division has been part of Development Services for a long time…the city has many offices in different departments,” explained Katie Coyne of the Watershed Protection Department. “My role as an environmental officer is to make sure the work is coordinated, but Developmental Services is a good partner to do that work and that’s where that division has been for years and years and years.”

The division is ask the public’s opinion on the proposed changes until the end of February. They hope to submit their final suggestions to the city’s rules officer by March 3, and the adoption process would theoretically take place at the end of the summer.

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