Rochester to trim tree preservation ordinance

August 31, 2018

An ordinance designed to protect the natural tree canopy in Rochester will be trimmed back slightly under an ordinance amendment introduced on Monday, August 27, by Rochester City Council.

The amendment, if finalized, would update the city's nine-year-old landmark tree ordinance, which provides special protections to trees that are wider than 24 inches, and meets certain health criteria. Under the amendment, certain trees deemed "nuisance species" wouldn't qualify as being designated "landmark trees."

Deputy city manager and professional forester Nik Banda said the ordinance would still protect all tree species that are over seven-inches in diameter from being clear cut in the city. However, some species that are particularly brittle or problematic would be excluded from the city's landmark designation, which can only be removed with approval from city council.

Tree species proposed to be removed from the landmark designation include boxelder, Chinese elm, cottonwood, crabapple, ginko (female), hawthorn, mulberry, pear, Russian olive, Siberian elm, silver maple, tree of heaven and willow.

The proposed revisions came following an August 13 discussion stemming from a request to remove a 150-year-old silver maple tree in the 100 block of Drace Avenue. Council at that time discussed whether silver maples and some other species should receive special protections, as they aren't recommended for new plantings by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Banda at the time recommended preserving the 150-year-old silver maple being requested for removal. However, he confirmed that some species don't receive special protections in other municipalities. Council at the time informally directed Banda and city attorney Jeffrey Kragt to review the ordinance and return with a revised ordinance.

Rochester resident Patricia Kane said she believes the proposed ordinance change was a simply a way for the city to bend to the will of some individuals who desire to build on their private property but have been stalled due to the tree ordinance. She said the city is arbitrarily removing trees without following the complete list of recommended trees from the state.

Council hasn't approved any such requests since the ordinance was implemented nearly a decade earlier.

Councilwoman Ann Peterson echoed some of Kane's sentiment, suggesting that council was only discussing an amendment to the ordinance after a motion to allow the tree to be removed failed to gain support.

"I don't see why we should change the ordinance because someone came in front of us," Peterson said.

Rochester Mayor Rob Ray said while the discussion about the tree policy was spurred by the request regarding the silver maple tree, the proposed changes weren't made specifically to accommodate the request.

"I don't think it's uncommon for something to spur debate about policy," he said. "We didn't form an infrastructure committee until former councilman Cuthbertson came in week after week with pictures of potential infrastructure projects... Sometimes that's what fosters conversations. The fact that the ordinance revision comes on the back of that doesn't give me pause."

Banda, who has several decades of experience as a forester, said on August 27 the revised ordinance wasn't taken directly from the DNR's list of trees not recommended for urban planting nor directly from other community's ordinances. Rather, he said, he focused mainly on tree species that become dangerous in right of ways and pathways due to their brittleness and susceptibility to diseases.

"In the medical field, things change daily. In the forestry world, because of global warming, there are climate zones, and everyone in zones four and five planted tulip trees, sweetgums and others, and over the past few years we lost many of those to cold weather," Banda said. "The professional forestry industry has morphed. Now we are having a maple plight. What happened with the ash is happening with maples. Austrian pines can't make it here anymore."

He said due to climate changes and other factors such as tree disease, it's a good idea to update tree ordinances on a regular basis, or about every five years when conditions change.

Council unanimously approved the first reading and introduction of the amendment. A second reading and public hearing will need to take place before the amendment is finalized.

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