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Neighborhoods Can Now Organize to 'Stop Clear-Cutting' of Trees, Dallas City Council Says

The Dallas Morning News ran article on the newly passed Neighborhood Forest Overlay, which is an ordinance that allows neighborhoods to organize to save trees.
Dallas City Council just passed a new type of zoning district that will allow as few as ten lots to create a process to protect trees.

Published April 11, 2019 By CORBETT SMITH


Dallas neighborhoods can now band together to protect their trees.

The Dallas City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the creation of a special type of zoning district called a Neighborhood Forest Overlay. Homeowners with as few as 10 lots can use the mechanism to create a process for tree removal and mitigation.

For example, if a resident clears a tree protected by the overlay, the ordinance asks that a replacement be planted on the lot, or within the boundaries of the overlay, or within 5 miles.

If that can't happen, the resident can pay into the city's reforestation fund.

"This concept addresses a problem that has been out there forever," said Far North Dallas council member Sandy Greyson, who championed the effort.

Although the city revamped and strengthened its tree and landscape ordinance — Article X — in 2018, the protections were still limited. City code excluded single-family and duplex lots smaller than 2 acres from tree regulations. Vacant 1-acre lots in residential areas were also exempt.

Homeowners could seek historic designations for their own trees to protect them from getting cleared by future owners, but little could be done about a neighbor's trees. 

During Wednesday's meeting, Greyson recalled an incident when a homeowner in the Forest Hills neighborhood cut down all his trees before selling the home for a teardown. 

"It changed the character of that neighborhood, and the neighborhood was tremendously upset," she said. "This is a voluntary method of protecting their trees; nobody has to do this. You get together with your neighbors and decide that this is something that you want to pursue. 

"So, I think it's the best of both worlds: It's voluntary, and it helps us protect neighborhood trees." 

The ordinance was a compromise struck between activists and developers during the amending of Article X.

"We weren't saving squat in Article X unless a tree was historic," said Steve Houser, chairman emeritus of the Dallas Urban Forest Advisory Committee. "And that was so frustrating to me. The Neighborhood Forest Overlay was the only thing I could come up with to stop clear-cutting."

Houser, who spent years on the tree-ordinance redo, worked with former City Council member Bob Stimson on the ordinance.

"Neighborhoods change, trees grow and die," Stimson said. "If we can do something that gives them a chance to grow and enhance neighborhoods, that is what this is about."

Neighbors can now form a committee and petition the city for an overlay. They'd need public meetings and approval by the City Plan Commission and the City Council before the overlay takes effect.

When creating the overlay, the neighborhood can pick its own "tree conservation area," ranging from protecting trees in a front yard setback to those covering an entire lot. Communities also have the option of designating a certain level of canopy coverage or the number of trees in a front yard.

"Residents should have reasonable assurances that the neighborhood that they chose to live in retains its character," said Pat Melly, a board member for the East Kessler Park Neighborhood Association who spoke in favor of the overlay.

Council member Philip Kingston praised Greyson's shepherding of the overlay ordinance through City Hall. He also lauded Houser's decades-long involvement in protecting the city's urban canopy, calling the tree advocate "an indefatigable Lorax for Dallas."

Most of the 45-minute debate on the new policy centered around attempting to provide more exemptions within the overlay ordinance — such as getting an arborist's or structural engineer's approval to take down a tree.

Phil Crone, an executive officer at the Dallas Builders Association, warned that without clear definitions baked into the document about what would constitute a valid defense, a family could run into legal headaches because of the overlay if they tried to clear a tree that was damaging their home's foundation.

"They shouldn't have to go through an expensive, bureaucratic — and possibly a court — process to work that out," Crone said.

The council eventually settled on a compromise, adding a letter from a certified arborist as a possible defense. 

City columnist Robert Wilonsky contributed to this report.

To read the article online at the Dallas Morning News website, select "Neighborhoods Can Now Organize to 'Stop Clear-Cutting' of Trees, Dallas City Council Says."

About the author

Mr. Corbett Smith

Mr. Smith is a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News. He covers Education, Dallas ISD, Higher Education, and Early Childhood Education.

Mr. Smith has covered education - and Dallas ISD - for The Dallas Morning News since February 2016. Prior to covering education, he was a writer for SportsDay, covering high school sports for six years. During that span, he was named as one of the nation’s top ten beat writers for his work in 2014.

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