Be careful cutting

Henderson’s City Council has passed a new tree-protection law that would require developers to save or restore a portion of the tree canopy on construction sites like this one near Maria Parham Health.

HENDERSON — The City Council has enacted a tree-protection ordinance that instructs future developers to save up to 40% of the tree canopy on their property.

Monday’s vote — unanimous among the seven council members present — replaced an ordinance that merely required developers to clean up after cutting down trees, planting over any bare spaces they don’t immediately put a building on.

Passage of the new law “was long overdue,” Mayor Eddie Ellington said, adding that with the development taking place within the city’s jurisdiction he thinks “this is a proactive approach to protect property owners well into the future.”

“The previous ordinance offered basically no protection to the residents nor the wildlife and wetlands that share these areas together,” Ellington said.

The new law is substantively similar to those in place in communities across the nearby Triangle.

Officials stopped short of making the 40% canopy standard an across-the-board demand.

Apartment and commercial developers have to save 30% of the canopy, and industrial developers have to save 20%.

The rules apply to projects that require City Council approval, including those that need a special-use permit or a major modification to an existing one.

The law gives the council the authority to modify the standard in some cases, to help control stormwater runoff, help the development of affordable housing, preserve community character or otherwise promote the city’s policy goals.

Moreover, when calculating how much canopy to leave, a developer doesn’t have to count as part of a project’s land area some key things that are part of almost every development, namely any public rights of way, required playgrounds, water bodies and access easements.

The law requires developers to map the existing tree cover and ideally protect what already exists on a site. They have to plant trees to bring a development up to the required canopy, or pay a mitigation fee to the city that officials would use for plantings on public property.

It also asks developers to “maximize the preservation of rare and specimen trees,” meaning ones that are unusual, large or unusually large.

A rare pine tree, for example, is a healthy one with a trunk that’s more than 3 feet in diameter, and a specimen pine is one with a trunk that’s more than 18 inches in diameter.

North Carolina-native trees like dogwoods and redbuds don’t have to be anywhere near that big to qualify for either label, and there are some trees that would be so unusual for this area — such as a sequoia or Live Oak — that they’d merit protection regardless of their size.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.