Lexington Developer’s Crews Raze 4 Legacy Oak Trees They Promised To Protect. Now What? | Old North State Wealth News
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Lexington developer’s crews raze 4 legacy oak trees they promised to protect. Now what?

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An engineering group overseeing a new commercial and housing project off of Harrodsburg Road has offered to plant 116 trees after it razed four red oak trees it had promised to protect.

Jihad Hallany, of Vision Engineering, told the Urban County Planning Commission at a June 13 meeting that during grading of the property at the intersection of Palomar Boulevard and Harrodsburg Road, four trees were cut due to problems encountered with the significant changes in elevation where the trees were located.

Hallany said to protect the trees they would have had to build a seven-foot retaining wall that would create a large depression in the property, along with adding a tree protection fence. It’s likely the trees would have eventually died, Hallany said.

“Hindsight is 2020. I should have come and talked to the urban forester,” Hallany said.

Vision Engineering is overseeing the project for the Greer Companies at 4085 Harrodsburg Road.

Hallany and Vision Engineering agreed as part of a mitigation plan to plant 116 trees on the property currently under development. The plans for the property include multiple retail buildings toward Harrodsburg Road, 14 town homes and seven single-family homes at the back of the property.

If a developer cuts trees it says it was going to protect, it must get Planning Commission approval of its tree mitigation plan, under county rules.

Several members of the Planning Commission said they wanted to know more about the plans.

Hallany and Vision Engineering must return to the June 27 Planning Commission meeting to provide more details about its tree replacement plan. The new tree protection plan must be added to the development plan, which was approved in March.

‘They were gone’

Eric Sutherland, the city’s urban forester, told the commission he was in the Harrodsburg Road area earlier this year and stopped by the site that was formerly a Masonic Lodge.

He said he had heard grading had started on the site. He was not contacted prior to construction beginning, which is required.

Sutherland said he drove up the slight incline of the property and noticed four red oak trees that stood in a row toward the back of the property were not there.

“The trees were gone,” Sutherland said. “We were shocked and disappointed.”

Developers must designate significant trees on a site when submitting a development plan. Those significant trees are typically older trees, sometimes called legacy trees, that include certain species such as bur oak, or trees with large diameters.

Sutherland, who started his job in September, said the developers’ tree protection plan — which included the four red oak trees — was not adequate. During a site visit in November, he found other older trees on the property that should have been protected, he said. That tree protection plan was submitted prior to Sutherland starting his job.

When Sutherland found the four oak trees had been removed, he notified city planners.

Developers can make changes to a tree protection plan but typically only with the OK of the urban forester.

Halleny said the proposal to add 116 trees will surpass the city’s tree canopy requirements. The trees will be planted on the commercial area of the property, which the developer will still control after retail buildings are completed. If the trees are placed in the residential area, the new owners of that property could cut those trees down, Hallany said.

Planning Commission not satisfied

Despite the addition of new trees, some Planning Commission members said they had concerns.

The large trees that were razed provide significant shade and other environmental benefits. The smaller trees that will be planted will take decades to mature and provide a similar benefit, several commission members said.

Judy Worth, a commission member, said protecting the maximum number of trees on the property was a concern prior to the plan being approved in March.

“We found it really distressing to see those trees gone,” Worth said.

Mike Owens, who has served multiple stints on the Planning Commission, said this was not the first time trees designated for protection had been cut.

Can the city fine the developers?

Tracy Jones, a lawyer for the city, said the fines aren’t very steep. State law limits how much cities can fine developers for tree removal. The goal is to get compliance and have the problem mitigated — in this case, the planting of more trees, Jones said. Planting hundreds of trees is very costly.

Putting teeth in future protections

The city is in the midst of changing its tree protection ordinance to give it more teeth.

Some of the proposed changes will clarify there can be fines of up to $500 per violation and additional civil penalties if developers or contractors raze protected trees. It also makes clear the city’s environmental division can issue citations. The landscaping and tree protection zone text amendment may be discussed by the Planning Commission in July or August, city officials have said.

Traci Wade, the city’s planning manager, said the city can only enforce tree protection during development.

“The current zoning ordinance is limited in that the city has regulations that protect trees during construction, development activities,” Wade said.” Post development, the city does not have any mechanism to ensure protected trees are not removed.”

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