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Council Members Say Dallas' Tree Protection Rules Are Killing Development in Southern Dallas--And, They May Have a Point

Steve Houser, Dallas' leading tree activist believes the city should create an incentive program for creating dense, environmentally sustainable developments centered around transit lines & public transportation.
Steve Houser. Photo by Eric Nicholson.

Published February 10, 2014 By ERIC NICHOLSON


Developers have been bitching about Dallas' tree-preservation rules since they were first put in place two decades ago. Though the regulations are fairly light (trees of certain desirable species must be replaced or offset by a contribution to the city's reforestation fund), they've been loath to accept the notion that a few sticks of wood should be allowed to stand in the way of economic progress.

The developer perspective got a hearty endorsement from members of the City Council's Quality of Life Committee this morning.

"We've got our arms tied between our back," Councilman Rick Callahan said, arguing that businesses are forsaking Dallas for the "cotton fields" of Plano and Murphy so they don't have to comply with the tree ordinance.

Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins agreed, arguing that economic development in tree-filled southern Dallas was DOA so long as Dallas is so strict.

"I don't care how you’re gonna 'Grow South,' you're not going to grow south until you knock some of those trees down."

You'd expect Steve Houser, the city's leading tree activist, to bristle at such comments, and he does. If developers want to skirt the rules, they set up a planned development district and request and exemption from City Council, like Walmart did a couple of years ago for its store on Westmoreland Road.

But Houser acknowledges that the tree ordinance presents an obstacle to development in southern Dallas that doesn't exist up north, where property values are high enough that developers can absorb tree-replacement costs. He also agrees with Callahan and Atkins on a more fundamental level: Dallas' tree ordinance has been a failure.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but the basic problem is that, while replacing every tree that is felled is better than nothing, it ignores the broader environmental issue of sprawl. Put another way -- and we apologize for this pun in advance -- the city's missing the forest for the trees.

Houser came to this realization after scores of meetings with longtime nemesis Bob Stimson, the development-minded city councilman-turned-Oak Cliff Chamber president, and years spent working on Vision North Texas, a regional initiative to steer future development.

Rather than focus on replacing individual trees, Houser decided, the city should create a program to incentivize the creation of dense, environmentally sustainable developments and mixed-use projects on transit lines, a la Mockingbird Station. The environmental benefits of limiting sprawl would far outweigh the benefit of saving a few trees from the gaping maw of a Super Walmart.

Houser, and his Vision North Texas colleagues, have been trying to get the city to listen for years. The council's discussion of the tree ordinance this afternoon provided the first evidence the city is doing that.

Any revision of the ordinance is still a way off, but even Sandy Greyson, the council's leading tree advocate, acknowledged that the current rules aren't working. So, expect change to come.

About the author

Mr. Eric Nicholson

Mr. Nicholson is a reporter for the Dallas Observer.

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