Not Everyone Wants Trees

Roscoe Klausing on Dec 9, 2014 5:09:00 AM

Late last week the Courier-Journal ran a story about a dispute between a Metro Louisville community and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC). The City of Rolling Fields recently funded a $17,000 street tree planting project along a section of Brownsboro Road. The KYTC, who maintains the section of Brownsboro Road where the trees were planted, is demanding that the community remove the trees by Christmas or expect an invoice for the cost the department incurs to remove the trees. KYTC sites motorist safety as the reason for the order.

The city of Louisville, like many in the US, has documented environmental issues that are caused by the urban heat island and improper stormwater management. The decline of the urban forest has been directly linked to each of these issues. Louisville’s leadership is well aware of this and created the Louisville Metro Tree Advisory Commission to tackle these challenges. Their work has included a city-wide tree canopy study and the planting of thousands of trees throughout the city. The City of Rolling Hills planted the street trees on Brownsboro Road as part of this city-wide effort.

It is the policy of KYTC to prohibit the planting of trees greater than 4” in diameter within a certain distance of state roadways. Poor placement of trees can block views, impede passing, obstruct utilities, and damage property. All of these are valid concerns but some of these begin to lose weight when you consider that KYTC allows the installation of utility poles within this same easement. Officials say that it would be impractical to remove all the utility poles from these areas but is it not just as impractical to remove or disallow trees? Do the utility poles not cause a similar threat to public safety?

The section of the Brownsboro Road, where the trees were planted, is in an urban area where the speed limit is 35 mph and the street is paralleled by sidewalks. It would seem this is the appropriate placement of street trees if one is seeking to take full advantage of the benefits trees provide. Assuming the trees, Willow Oaks and the Zelkova, are allowed to grow to a diameter of 18”, they will provide the City of Rolling Hills over $1,200 of environmental benefits annually. They will also,

  • intercept 82,000 gallons of stormwater runoff every year,

  • conserve 1,800 Kilowatt hours of electricity or 51 Therms of natural gas, and

  • reduce atmospheric carbon by over 13,000 pounds.

In our childhood we come to appreciate the beauty that trees provide to our communities. As adults, when week seek to purchase our first home, we learn that landscaping and trees raise property values and increase marketability. Now, the scientific community has come to understand that trees do an amazing job of cleaning the air, curbing stormwater runoff, and reducing energy consumption. Trees are no less a part of our city’s infrastructure than the utility poles that carry power to your home and the drains and pipes that move stormwater away from your basement.

The KYTC concern for public safety is valid and there is little question about whether or not the placement of a tree near a roadway could be hazardous. But, a policy that does not differentiate between trees placed adjacent to rural highways versus city streets in urban communities is flawed. Trees are infrastructure and cities must be allowed to take full advantage of the benefits they provide.

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