Durham County

Tree envy: Why Durham wants to be more like Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Cary

Watts Street near Duke University East Campus is one of many tree-lined streets in Trinity Heights, Duke Park and Trinity Park neighborhoods. The city is looking at correctly the disparity in tree canopies across neighborhoods.
Watts Street near Duke University East Campus is one of many tree-lined streets in Trinity Heights, Duke Park and Trinity Park neighborhoods. The city is looking at correctly the disparity in tree canopies across neighborhoods. dvaughan@newsobserver.com

The city wants to do a better job of planting trees throughout Durham, not just in wealthier neighborhoods.

TreesDurham, a new nonprofit championed by Mayor Steve Schewel, wants to make the city’s tree policies “equal to or better than our neighbors, with the goal of creating a socially just, healthy and sustainable tree canopy and environment.”

Tree preservation is required everywhere in Chapel Hill and Cary, but in Durham it applies only to sites that meet certain requirements and then only in rural and suburban tiers, according to a study by TreesDurham.

Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Morrisville, Winston-Salem and Cary all have minimum tree-preservation requirements in their development rules. Durham has none.

Right-of-way street trees are required in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Cary. In Durham, they are not.

Here are TreesDurham’s recommendations:

Require developers to plant street trees along the street in the city right-of-way. That could mean the grassy strip between a sidewalk and the curb, or usually five to 10 feet from the curb, said Durham Planning Director Patrick Young. Right now, those trees are also planted with written permission. Not everybody wants a tree, Young said, and the city won’t force them in front of people’s houses, but rather for new developments.

A variety of trees could be planted, giving people a choice. Young said they could range from shrubs to canopy trees, with “understory” trees in the middle like crepe myrtles.

Require a minimum percentage of tree preservation for new developments that are two or more acres. TreesDurham is asking for 15 percent minimum. Raleigh’s minimum is 10 percent.

Hire arborists to review plans, enforce tree-protection zones, and provide development landscape inspections and sign off.

Require surveys of trees to be verified by an arborist, not by a picture.

Update the landscape manual to meet current scientifically based tree standards.

Over the next two months, the Planning Department will look at how to achieve and fund those five things.

Young said they’ll concentrate making sure the canopy is maintained, vibrant and healthy; and correcting disparities. Most public trees are in middle- and upper-income areas, he said, and “we need to fix that.”

Katie Rose Levin, who leads TreesDurham, said when studying Durham’s tree canopy, she saw many trees in Duke Park and Trinity Heights.

“Then I drove over to East Durham and found no trees,” she said. “It looks like Nevada versus the Piedmont.”

Alex Johnson, an urban forester for the city, said they will be looking at lower-income and lower home-ownership neighborhoods, recognizing “people renting their housing are not in a position to reach out and ask for trees.”

In Schewel’s state of the city address in February, the mayor laid out his plan for Durham’s “shared prosperity.” It includes planting trees, which among other things can lower energy costs

Schewel wants business partners to pay for the work and the people of Durham to do the planting. Durham needs to plant 60,000 trees over the next 20 years, he said then. “I believe deeply that trees, like streets and water mains, are a critical public asset,” he said..

What’s next

City departments affected by the TreesDurham proposals include Public Works, Transportation and City General Services along with the Planning Department. They will report back to the Joint City-County Planning Committee at its next meeting Dec. 18, then to the council and commissioners in 2019.

A broader look at the city’s trees should be part of Durham’s next comprehensive plan effort, which begins this fall and lasts until 2021.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan
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