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Victoria council to consider tree restrictions

By Melissa Crowe
Dec. 7, 2013 at 6:07 a.m.
Updated Dec. 8, 2013 at 6:08 a.m.

An ordinance amending Section 10-41 of chapter 10 of the Victoria City Code would require at least a 14-foot clearance between overhanging trees and all portions of the road. If implemented, the new ordinance would go into effect  Dec. 17.

THE CROSSROADS IN THE TEXAS BIG TREE REGISTRY

Victoria County

• 148-inch circumference, 42-foot height, National Co-Champion Anaqua

DeWitt County

• 148-inch circumference, 40-foot height, National Co-Champion Anaqua

SOURCE: TEXAS FORESTRY SERVICE

Soaring sycamores, scarlet red oaks and the dense anaqua trees lining historic Victoria could soon be on the chopping block.

Residents and preservationists say a proposed change to the city's tree ordinance - requiring property owners to cut their trees back - could harm trees and property values, but city leaders say they need the height clearance on streets for emergency vehicles.

The new rule calls for maintaining a 14-foot clearance between the street and a tree's lowest branches, with no exception for historic neighborhoods or Victoria's century-old trees.

"These blanket tree vandalism orders that come out of City Hall need to be fine-tuned," said Gary Dunnam, former Victoria County heritage director.

If the change is approved, Dunnam worries city-contracted tree trimmers will "savagely vandalize" the tree canopies lining streets such as Power and Stayton avenues in the original townsite.

"Some limbs may be in the way, but it needs to be dealt with on an individual basis," Dunnam said.

City Manager Charmelle Garrett said the change is intended to make more room for emergency vehicles and fire trucks.

"We're not going to go in there with a buzz saw," she said during Tuesday night's City Council meeting, where the issue was first brought up.

However, residents can still recall the damage a contracted tree trimmer, Asplundh, did in 2003 after Hurricane Claudette.

"The company hired by the city to trim up trees savagely disfigured trees all over town," Dunnam said.

The City Council is expected to make a final decision about the change during the Dec. 17 meeting.

The change in ordinance puts the issue under the planning services department, directed by Jared Mayfield.

Mayfield, a self-proclaimed "downtowner," said the clearance requirement will be complaint-driven.

After the landowner is notified to trim a tree, and if he or she does not take care of it, the city would hire a contractor and bill the landowner.

"It's not like we're going to start driving down neighborhoods or streets downtown and start handing out notices left and right," Mayfield said.

He does not foresee any major changes to the atmosphere of tree-lined neighborhoods.

"We'll apply some practical sense to it," he said. "If we have an 80-year-old oak tree with a substantial branch that's 12-and-a-half feet at the curb, we can do some trimming in the middle of the road to make it clear. ... The main deal is to get a clear path down the center of the street."

While some complaints may come from the fire department or the solid waste department, Mayfield recalled a recent complaint about a Northcrest resident who could not move his RV without scraping the roof on low branches.

Louise Hull-Patillo, a Realtor and past president of the Victoria Main Street Program, said she wants to keep the city's trees as they are.

"It's part of the ambience of the downtown area," she said.

The Texas A&M Forest Service has a state program designed to help cities plant, care and protect trees.

Paul Johnson, an urban forestry specialist with the forest service, said the program is designed to help cities avoid situations such as what occurred in Victoria after Hurricane Claudette.

"It's really important that cities communicate with the property owners who are adjacent to the trees," he said. "And it's really important that you do things in an agriculturally, horticulturally and scientifically sound manner."

Not only can trees help people save on their electric bills by blocking the sun, but they can also increase property values and create tourism destinations.

Johnson said trees also reduce storm water runoff, energy costs and air pollution, and new research links them with positive mental and physical health.

"It's a strong reason for communities to invest in their trees and not just look at them as an obstacle," he said.

While pruning trees is one solution to the clearance issue, Johnson said some cities have taken a different route, opting instead to leave the trees alone and mark the road so taller vehicles know which areas have the best clearance.

However, if vehicles are continuously hitting branches, it can cause serious damage to a tree's health.

"The real key is to make sure you have a trained professional arborist helping to make the decisions on what really needs to come out," he said.

Cody Owens, a certified arborist in Houston, said he is seeing more cities around the Houston area adopt 14-foot clearance rules.

"If you have a good certified company and make correct cuts, you can raise these trees - even the mature trees - to 14 foot without causing any problems to the tree whatsoever," he said.

Through "tip pruning," an arborist can prune back the heavy ends of branches to reach the height requirement, without making drastic cuts.

"If you take off the lower ends of the branch, it will raise itself," he said. "What's worse than a one-time good cut at 14 feet is trucks coming in and breaking limbs or knocking holes in limbs. That's what damages trees more."

He said the key is to never prune more than 20 percent of a tree.

However, low-cost contractors, many of whom are not certified arborists, do not have time to make detailed decisions for each cut, Owens said.

"It would look like a butcher went in there and cut a straight line," he said. "That's what hurts a tree and can lead to problems down the line."

From the oak trees planted in 1931 along Santa Rosa Street near the railroad to the memory of the state champion Durand oak at Riverside Park felled by Hurricane Claudette, Dunnam said he hopes the city and its leaders adopt a sensitivity to the historic value of its older trees.

"They provide the character downtown that everyone loves to see," he said. "Trees have lives and history."

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