New rules to foster tree canopy get the go-ahead

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West Hollywood City Council approved new citywide landscape and tree canopy standards at their meeting Monday night. 

The discussion held by Council was led by Rick Abramson, the manager of the Urban Design and Architecture Studio, along with Jennifer Alkire, manager of the Current and Historic Preservation Planning Division, and Michael Barker, the city’s project architect overseeing capital program work. 

The initiative stemmed from a directive by the City Council to amend the City Zoning Laws, concentrating on the replacement of canopy trees in existing residential and commercial developments and mandating a minimum number of new trees in new developments where they don’t currently exist. The council, especially Councilmember Heilman, suggested looking beyond the specific numbers and exploring creative alternatives to achieve these objectives.

This ordinance specifically targets private property in residential and commercial zoning districts, aligning with the city’s core values of preserving and creating open and green spaces in an urban setting. The purpose and intent of the proposal expanded to incorporate the city’s climate action and adaptation plan implementation phase, considering state housing laws that require local jurisdictions to establish objective and enforceable standards.

A significant aspect was to ensure flexibility in cases of hardship or physical constraints, offering alternatives for tree addition or replacement. The importance of trees in addressing climate change, heat island effects, air quality, water resource stewardship, and soil health was emphasized.

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Another critical factor was biodiversity, especially concerning tree species vulnerable to disease and infestation, to prevent significant loss of regional tree canopy. Trees were recognized as community assets, contributing to climate resilience, sustainability, economic and social benefits, and equity in civic environments.

Staff used data from Chapman University and Loyola Marymount University, in conjunction with Tree People, to focus on West Hollywood’s tree canopy coverage. The data showed green areas with adequate coverage and blue areas under the recommended level. The green areas mostly corresponded with less dense R1 and R2 zoning districts, while the blue areas were primarily in multifamily and commercial zones.

The discussion also covered the broader ecological role of trees, including wildlife support and the importance of underground ecosystems. In West Hollywood’s residential zones, a mix of public and private trees was observed, while multifamily areas relied heavily on street trees, with commercial and mixed-use areas having less coverage.

The evolution of housing types in the city was reviewed, from bungalow courts surrounded by green spaces to contemporary high-density housing contributing to heat island effects. The challenge was to balance the need for high-density housing with the integration of green spaces and trees.

Regarding outreach and community engagement, efforts spanned three years, including during the pandemic. Various methods were employed to include diverse voices, such as citywide presentations, symposia on trees and urban forestry, discussions with business and development groups, climate researchers, land use attorneys, academics, environmental organizations, community advocates, tree preservationists, business owners, representatives from billboard and media signage companies, health and wellness professionals, LA County Fire, and Southern California Edison. The aim was to gather diverse viewpoints to shape the proposal effectively.

A notable aspect of the discussion was the reference to a recent study published in Science Advances. This study highlighted the health benefits of living near greener landscapes, particularly in urbanized areas. It was reported that individuals with more exposure to green spaces tend to live approximately two and a half years longer. The study linked this increased lifespan to biological and molecular changes that occur due to proximity to greenery, a finding that has substantial implications for urban planning. This information underscored the importance of expanding green infrastructure in cities to promote public health and address health disparities.

Following this, Michael Barker took the lead in discussing the specifics of the proposed updates and new standards that were on the agenda for the meeting. At the request of Council, Barker focused directly on their implications. These updates aimed to enhance objectivity and clarity in definitions relevant to state laws, facilitating a smoother process for applicants and developers. The discussion touched upon several key areas, including the preservation, replacement, and removal of mature canopy trees, as well as standards for tree location. Additionally, the conversation delved into aspects of soil health, such as tree box sizes, the content of organic materials, distances from walls, and requirements for permeable surfaces. The standards also covered the integration of canopy trees in residential, commercial, and mixed-use developments.

The overarching intent of the ordinance was to refine the existing zoning code, which had been criticized for its lack of clarity and subjective nature. The aim was to provide property owners and the development community with clear, objective standards to eliminate prolonged processes of interpretation.

Q&A

During the Q&A session, the council inquired about the extent of engagement with housing-related organizations and homeowners. It was revealed that housing organizations had not been consulted during the drafting of the ordinance. Moreover, homeowners had not been surveyed to gauge their awareness or support for the ordinance, particularly in terms of its impact on private property regulations.

Concerns were also raised regarding the potential financial impact and procedural timeframes associated with compliance with the new standards, especially in relation to tree-related issues. Questions were posed about the time required for obtaining arborist reports and the overall fiscal burden on property owners. Additionally, comparisons were drawn with tree canopy policies and permitting standards in other Southern Californian cities like Pasadena, Glendale, and Los Angeles, which have adopted various approaches to tree management in urban planning.

Council compared West Hollywood’s policies with those of neighboring cities like Los Angeles and Pasadena, noting significant variances in the definition of protected trees and the criteria for what constitutes a mature canopy tree. In these cities, the definitions varied based on tree species and physical characteristics, such as height and diameter, typically measured at about 54 inches above ground. This comparison was crucial in refining West Hollywood’s own definitions to align with regional best practices.

A key concern raised during the meeting was the potential conflict between tree preservation and housing development. The Council discussed the revised language in the city’s ordinance, which aimed to balance these interests. The revised ordinance stated that new construction should take precedence over tree preservation. This meant that if a tree needed to be removed for development, the requirement would be to replace it, offering flexibility in how this could be achieved. The Council was keen to ensure that development was not unduly delayed by tree preservation concerns. Moreover, it was emphasized that state housing laws would override local tree preservation ordinances, a point that was explicitly added to the proposal for clarity.

The initiative for revising the tree preservation policy was traced back to a personal experience of a Councilmember Lauren Meister, who noticed a loophole in the existing policy which allowed new developments to avoid replacing trees that were removed, leading to a gradual loss of the city’s tree canopy.

Staff’s outreach efforts were scrutinized, including their engagement with various commissions, boards, and the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. One specific instance discussed was the concern over trees obstructing signage, with the clarification that the primary focus of the ordinance was trees on private property rather than those in public right-of-ways.

The implications of the ordinance for individual homeowners and condo associations were another focal point of the discussion. The ordinance, as clarified, would require permits for the removal of canopy trees, with a focus on the single-family zones where most private property trees are located. Staff acknowledged that while the frequency of tree removals and replacements might be lower in single and duplex contexts compared to new developments, the preservation of trees in these zones was still vital.

Meister raised a question about the broader causes of tree loss in the city, beyond the lack of objective standards. The response highlighted several factors, including disease, infestation, and policy changes from external entities like the fire department and SCE. It was noted that SCE had the authority to trim trees for infrastructure maintenance, which sometimes led to severe cutting back of trees. 

PUBLIC COMMENT

The public comment segment of the meeting brought forward personal stories and concerns from residents. These comments emphasized the practical benefits of trees in neighborhoods, such as providing shade and reducing energy costs, alongside their aesthetic and environmental value.

George Nickle began by sharing a personal anecdote about the impact of tree cutbacks on their household. They explained how the reduction of tree cover in their area led to a significant increase in their electricity bills. This was due to the lack of shade, which had previously helped keep their home cool during summer months. Nickle noted that it took approximately two years for the tree cover to regrow sufficiently to mitigate this issue again. He cited a study that suggested a correlation between life expectancy and access to green spaces, including trees. 

Alan Strasbur, expressed his initial surprise at perceiving an anti-tree sentiment in a previous meeting. He thanked Lynn Hoopengarner for her advocacy in defense of trees, as evidenced by her published piece. Strasburg reinforced the idea that trees have a calming effect on urban environments and shared a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which eloquently captured the essence of trees in an urban landscape.

Lynn Hoopengarner then took the floor, discussing the physical and emotional impacts of tree-lined streets compared to areas lacking in tree cover. She described how one’s body could feel tense in tree-scarce areas, while tree-rich environments promote relaxation and comfort. Hoopengarner pointed out the disparity in tree cover in low-income communities compared to wealthier areas, labeling this disparity as a significant social issue. She highlighted the extensive outreach efforts undertaken by city staff on this issue and addressed concerns about the cost of maintaining trees. Drawing from her personal experience, she mentioned that the upkeep of her 200-year-old trees was neither prohibitively expensive nor overly burdensome.

Kathy Blaivas followed, expressing her expectation that tree preservation would be a non-controversial topic, potentially even a consent calendar item, given its perceived importance. She used the example of driving from West Hollywood into Beverly Hills to illustrate the stark contrast in tree cover between the two areas. Blavis also questioned the council’s priorities, comparing the importance of tree preservation to other items on the agenda, such as the implementation of scooters as a climate crisis solution.

Angie Beckett, representing the West Hollywood Tree Preservation Society, voiced strong support for the proposed amendment to update landscape and tree canopy standards. She commended the thorough outreach and the comprehensive nature of the proposed legislation, emphasizing its importance not just for West Hollywood but for the broader Los Angeles area. Beckett urged Council to adopt the measure, highlighting her 25-year effort in advocating for tree respect and preservation.

Eric Matos, while supportive of the intent behind tree preservation, raised concerns about the practical implications of the policy. He pointed out a specific clause in the ordinance regarding the design of new structures around mature trees and the potential for subjective interpretations in its implementation. Matos emphasized the need for clear, objective guidelines to ensure the policy’s effective and fair application.

Annie Jump Vicente closed the in-person comments with a unique perspective on urban forestry. She advocated for the planting of more fruit-bearing (female) trees in the city, highlighting the personal and communal benefits of having accessible fruit trees in urban areas. She also mentioned the adverse effect of asphalt in absorbing heat, increasing the urban heat island effect, and contrasted this with the positive impact of trees in mitigating these issues.

The discussion then moved to a Zoom participant, Lynn Russell. Russell commended the efforts of Rick Abramson and his team for their respect for the tree canopy and related ecological concerns. She supported the comments submitted by Lynn Hoopengarner, which she endorsed wholeheartedly. Russell’s experience living in protected areas on the East Coast had made her acutely aware of the importance of tree care. She emphasized the need for architects to design projects with tree preservation in mind, advocating for the relocation of trees to sustainable environments when absolutely necessary.

DISCUSSION

Councilmember Meister then sought clarification from staff on a comment made by Matos. Staff explained that Matos was referring to a section of the municipal code that allows for exemptions in cases of hardship when it comes to tree planting or relocation. This exemption, they clarified, should be based on genuine hardship, not mere inconvenience. The staff also mentioned that the Planning Commission had suggested augmenting the definitions in the staff report to provide greater clarity on these points.

Meister recounted how when she initially brought this item forward in November 2019, she hadn’t anticipated pushback from progressive entities like the Planning Commission. Meister emphasized the importance of saving trees to combat climate change and the urban heat island effect, noting that trees provide immediate relief from rising temperatures. She highlighted the city’s role in planting trees in public spaces but pointed out the limitations due to available space, thereby stressing the need for private residential and commercial property owners to contribute to the fight against climate change.

Addressing concerns that citywide landscape and tree canopy standards might impede housing construction, Meister argued that such fears were unfounded, stating that the Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) being discussed did not preclude housing development. She cited the disparity in tree canopy coverage across the city, especially on private properties in the Mid-City area and the east side, where higher density projects are more common. Meister asserted the need for private property owners to replenish the tree canopy, referencing an article from Scientific American Magazine. The article discussed the scale at which trees must be planted or regenerate naturally to continue providing health benefits and slowing the effects of climate change. The magazine also highlighted the severe temperature disparities caused by urban heat islands, potentially leading to a significant increase in heat-related deaths in the coming decades.

Meister concluded her remarks by emphasizing that the ZTA aligns with the city’s Vision 2020, general plan goals, and climate action plan. She argued for the need for specific local development standards, stating that “bold cities make bold moves,” and encouraged the council to support the proposed ordinance.

Councilmember John Heilman voiced his full support for the amendment, commending the time and effort that had gone into its development. He specifically appreciated the thoughtful amendments introduced by the Planning Commission and their policy directives. However, Heilman expressed reservations about the council’s role in conducting educational forums on tree and biodiversity, stating that these were not primary functions of local government. He stressed that the council’s focus should be on implementing the ordinance, without expanding into a series of public events, as he believed such activities would not effectively accomplish the council’s goals.

Councilmember Chelsea Byers expressed gratitude for the initiative, noting the importance of where the policy was coming from. She raised a crucial point about the potential conflict between environmental policy and housing development. Byers argued that it’s essential to balance the two, as both are critical for creating a livable community. She pointed out that environmental policies have sometimes hindered housing development, while housing projects have often damaged the environment. Byers called for a nuanced approach that embraces the tension between these two areas. She specifically referenced a community member’s suggestion regarding section 19.26020 of the ordinance, which dealt with the definition of hardship. Byers proposed reevaluating this section to ensure it does not hinder development, emphasizing the importance of considering timelines and financial aspects as legitimate hardships.

Mayor Pro Tem John Erickson commended the ZTA as well thought-out, mentioning a review of a 2019 meeting to understand its development process. Erickson aligned with Byers’ views on the importance of having clear, objective standards in the ordinance, especially concerning the definition of hardship. The Mayor Pro Tem was open to the majority’s decision on the additional elements of the proposal but expressed agreement that educational forums might be unnecessary. However, Erickson did support the tree giveaway initiative, noting its positive reception in the community and potential for greater impact with more promotion.

Mayor Sepi Shyne expressed excitement about the ZTA, recalling their advocacy for developing a tree canopy in West Hollywood during her campaign for the council. Shyne viewed the ordinance as a balance between expanding development goals and promoting environmental sustainability. She suggested partnering with external organizations for educational initiatives to avoid overburdening city staff. She was open to exploring alternatives to the language regarding hardship definitions, as brought up by Mayor Pro Tem Erickson and Councilmember Byers.

The council discussed potential amendments to the ordinance’s language, particularly around the definition of hardship in relation to environmental constraints on development. The city attorney was asked to review this language for possible modifications. A consensus emerged to remove a specific line from section 19.26.020, which dealt with hardships related to designing structures around mature trees.

Finally, the council addressed the inclusion of revised definitions in the motion. They agreed to strike the contentious line from section 19.26.020, focusing on the last sentence that deemed inconvenience due to a mature tree as not necessarily constituting a hardship. The motion, with these amendments, was put to a vote and passed with unanimous support, 5-0. 

 
 
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Cy Husain
5 months ago

Yes there are very real benefits to bringing in trees and other plant life into urban environments but, hanging plants off of skyscrapers or planting on roof tops is NOT a replacement for the Earth’s🌎 old growth forests. As to retaining or protecting the highly threatened flora & fauna biodiversity and addressing anthropogenic climate change, old growth forest habitat needs to be preserved. 🌳 🌲 🌴

Last edited 5 months ago by Cy Husain
Commenable Presentation
Commenable Presentation
5 months ago

Ric Abramson compiled a most conscientious and thorough presentation in this much needed ZTA. It is an example of a fine work ethic that other departments should emulate.

The Wildlife in Thankful
The Wildlife in Thankful
5 months ago

There is hope for the wildlife in the fabric surrounding us. It is crucial that we retain habitat for its link in the ecological chain.

Joshua88
Joshua88
5 months ago

A very popular program.
Well deserved kudos to all.

Perhaps the owners/developers/other people who claim they cannot replace a tree or cannot plant a tree should donate a tree to a “tree bank” for WeHo.

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