Historically, the City of Sacramento has a reputation as the “City of Trees” in recognition of its beautiful tree canopy. American Forests lists Sacramento as among the ten best cities for urban forests. The City of Sacramento is currently conducting an urban forestry strategic plan and tree ordinance review to decide what tree laws will best protect the tree canopy.
The City has assembled a Stakeholder Advisory Committee to gather community input. Those stakeholders include city officials, neighborhood association representatives and other business and environmental organizations. The city is maintaining a website relative to this process and has included project resources for the general public. Information relevant to this project will be uploaded to that site as the process continues.
On Thursday, roughly 30 stakeholders attended a meeting with the City to voice concerns about tree preservation and protection. These stakeholders have participated in several meetings and, in December 2013, took a field tour with the City’s project team to review problem sites around the City. The next stakeholder meetings are on April 17th and, tentatively, on April 25th. The proposed revisions to the tree ordinances will thereafter be presented to the Parks & Recreation Commission and the Planning Commission as well as to other city review committees. It is contemplated that the matter will be scheduled for approval before the Sacramento City Council sometime in July 2014.
The revised tree ordinance will set the rules for maintaining, expanding and enhancing the City’s urban forest. The City Council made findings, detailed in Section 12.56.010 of the City Code, that the “planting and preservation of trees enhances the natural scenic beauty, increases life-giving oxygen, promotes ecological balance, provides natural ventilation, air filtration, and temperature, erosion, and acoustical controls, increases property values, improves the lifestyle of residents, and enhances the identity of the city.” How will the City balance the interests of downtown development while preserving the tree canopy that identifies Sacramento as the “City of Trees?”
At the meeting on Thursday, it was made abundantly obvious that trees have been disappearing all over the city near new development projects and that those tree removals jeopardize the overall tree canopy. Joe Benassini, Urban Forest Services Manager for the City, claimed that the protection of the tree canopy was of vital importance to Sacramento. Dan Pskowski, the Curtis Park Neighborhood Association stakeholder representative and former City arborist, raised the issue that the City did nothing to stop the removal of “heritage trees” from the Curtis Village project. In fact, he asserts that under the recent leadership of Urban Forestry, the City policy went from “protect and preserve” to “remove and replace.”
Several other members of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee articulated city wide problems involving tree removals conducted without permits and no public notices as well as issues stemming from inadequate tree mitigation. Mr. Pskowski pointed out a specific downtown site that clearly demonstrates city policy changes as embodied in the development projects on L Street between 18th and 19th. On the north side, the development project incorporated the existing, mature trees as opposed the development at the lofts on the south side of L Street. One development project in the City preserved the tree canopy and, the other just on the opposite side of the street, removed mature trees and planted small replacement trees that do not provide a tree canopy over L Street. Mature canopy trees were also removed for the development project on the east side of 16th Street between O and P Streets. The high-rise at the site of 400 Capitol Mall incorporated existing trees whereas at 500 Capitol Mall the mature trees were completely removed thereby eliminating the continuous tree canopy on Capitol Mall at the corner of 5th Street.
Compare the high-rise at 400 Capitol mall that preserved the mature tree canopy on the 4th Street side with the 500 Capitol Mall high-rise project that was allowed to plant only small replacement trees on the 5th Street side.
Karen Jacques, from the Midtown Neighborhood Association, previously presented a 2014 report to stakeholders detailing the need for strengthening the tree ordinance. She posits that:
“Sacramento is losing its tree canopy particularly in the Central City grid. We need a tree ordinance and policies that protect city managed trees, including street trees. Healthy trees need to be retained and unhealthy trees need to be promptly replaced (canopy trees replaced with canopy trees). We need strong incentives for developers and businesses to retain existing trees and, where possible, add new trees. We also need to address the ongoing loss of space for trees due to the cementing over of city parkway strips and/or the creation of parkway strips that are too narrow to support healthy canopy trees. The entire process of how the City manages its trees needs to be public and transparent. Trees provide tremendous benefits and all of us have a stake in maintaining and growing our urban forest.”
The City was urged to mandate tree permits for the removal of all street trees, heritage trees and native oaks and, in addition, to improve notice to the public before trees are removed. The costumed bunny, an alter ego of SacUrban, urged the protection of the tree canopy in a two minute video by strengthening tree protections in the new ordinances.
Several canopy trees were removed at the proposed development site of the Sacramento Commons Project without permits or public notice. This site is bounded by N, P, 5th & 7th Streets.
As evidenced by the concerns voiced by various stakeholders, it is clear that there is a need for greater public transparency before trees are removed and for the adoption of tree laws that will actually protect trees as downtown development intensifies. As it stands now, it seems as if die-hard tree activists and city officials are the only people engaging on the importance of the Sacramento tree canopy. Systemic, bureaucratic and structural issues related to notice and information accessibility are impediments to public engagement. Notices for tree removals are only mailed to nearby owners and then posted on the tree for a short time, if at all. Most information available about trees is contained in PDF files stored on a government website which is where data goes to die. The public has a right to effective notice to engage the government on issues of public concern.
In Citizenville – How To Take The Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, there is a notion advanced that has relevance to this tree issue. Citizenville argues that government should make data available to the public and incentive problem solving. Why not offer a prize to any citizen that can develop an application that creates an interactive tree map which could visually identify every tree in the City by species and could then be connected to notifications for tree removals and hearings? Not award a politically connected firm a contract but rather offer a prize for the application that is actually the best and works. The Tree Foundation has started a tree map containing some, but not all, trees. Citizenville urges the “government-as-platform” idea as a means to transform local government.
“The future is sharing – open data, open participation, open source, open everything. And it must happen at every level. People have already learned to share in their personal lives – through Yelp reviews, YouTube videos, tweets, and Facebook posts … All of this sharing results in the strengthening of our commonwealth.”
The City should make the tree removal permit, notice and hearing process transparent and readily accessible for public engagement and feedback. The public should be able to “like” a tree and otherwise provide feedback to the City on the importance of specific trees for shade, beauty and how a tree improves the quality of life for city residents and visitors alike.
So what language should be in the new ordinances to best preserve the tree canopy that provides so many benefits while balancing the need for downtown development? Is it important to require a minimum tree canopy for each neighborhood? Should development projects be required to contribute to our historic tree canopy? Is the public entitled to notice of tree removals? Are trees worth protecting?
These policy issues, ultimately answered by the tree ordinance revisions adopted by the Sacramento City Council, will guide the future of trees for years to come.