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A tree preservation ordinance is being prepared in Rochester to help ensure the city’s tree canopy doesn’t shrink.

A tree preservation ordinance could be put on a faster track, nearly two years after the Rochester City Council brought up the topic. The issue came to the fore after several large trees were removed during redevelopment of the former Golden Hill School site along South Broadway.

Members of the city’s Committee on Urban Design and Environment plan to have a proposed ordinance ready for discussion next month.

“They would prefer us to come in with an incomplete tree ordinance they can build off of,” CUDE Chairman Paul Sims said of what he heard in a Rochester City Council discussion earlier this month.

Progress has been delayed as the committee sought support for developing a citywide Urban Forest Master Plan. The plan would set in motion work to assess current tree coverage throughout the city and offer ways to develop a larger canopy through policies such as a preservation ordinance.

Rochester City Forester Jeff Haberman estimates the city’s current canopy covers nearly 26 percent of the city, but that number is threatened to shrink. Embattled ash trees make up 13 percent of the overall coverage.

“Without that (ash tree) component, our canopy cover drops to 19 percent or less, which is a pretty dismal number,” he said, noting the Society of American Forests recommends municipalities have canopy covers of 40 percent or more.

Mood shifting

In recent years, the council has been hesitant when the proposed canopy assessment and master plan were discussed.

Thursday, Sims said the mood appears to be shifting with new council members and administrators.

“It was almost whiplash, because the position has changed from the last time,” Sims said of an April 1 council discussion regarding work on the proposed Urban Forest Master Plan. Developing the plan would cost an estimated $90,000.

While council members and Mayor Kim Norton voiced support for the eventual plan, they said they don’t want it to delay the creation of a city policy that could protect or replace trees amid new development.

“I’m tired of kicking the can down the road on the tree preservation stuff,” Council Member Michael Wojcik said, suggesting the city could use another community’s ordinance as a template.

“It’s not a lot to take another city (ordinance) and change the word ‘Hastings’ to ‘Rochester’ to do something that’s appropriate for us,” he said, referring to an ordinance he favors.

Barb Hudson, a member of the Committee on Urban Design and Environment, said that’s what she plans to do, with Haberman’s help. She and other committee members will meet with the forester in the coming month to develop a proposal based on another city’s ordinance.

Council Member Nick Campion said it doesn’t have to be a permanent solution, noting the city adopted a temporary transit-development ordinance while working to create new permanent guidelines.

He said the goal is to put protections in place while working on a master plan and developing future policies based on collected data.

“I’m kind of itching to do something to create a change here,” he said.

Value of trees

Meanwhile, work toward an Urban Forest Master Plan was given council support, if not added funding.

The city’s Park and Recreation Department has $50,000 set aside for the work, which Haberman said would fund a canopy assessment.

The remaining $40,000 needed will likely be decided in discussions to set the city’s 2020 budget, City Administrator Steve Rymer said.

Amid the discussion, Council Member Shaun Palmer warned against taking a tree-preservation ordinance too far, noting property owners should retain rights and developers shouldn’t be seen as simply wanting to destroy trees.

“They get more money when there are trees on their land, so to say developers want to tear down trees just for the sake of tearing down trees, that’s not true,” he said.

Sims said a preliminary ordinance could offer some guidance for preserving the urban forest without stirring a prolonged battle over property rights.

“I think a skillfully crafted ordinance could initially be silent on that or broad on that,” he said of property-rights concerns.

Haberman said an ordinance wouldn’t necessarily stop tree removals.

“With a tree preservation ordinance, it’s not necessarily that trees become sacred,” he said. “It’s that if they have to be removed, there is some compensation back to the community for the lost benefits that are occurring because of that.”

Trees, whether on private or public land, help reduce infrastructure costs for dealing with stormwater drainage, and they help reduce energy costs.

Haberman estimates 41,000 trees in the city provide a $1.8 million annual benefit.

The Committee on Urban Design and Environment is scheduled to meet next at 11:30 a.m. May 16 in room 104 of City Hall.

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Local Government Reporter

Randy is the Post Bulletin's local government reporter, covering the city of Rochester and Olmsted County, as well as Destination Medical Center efforts. He joined the Post Bulletin staff in 2014.