Ninth District Metro Councilman Bill Hollander was driving down Frankfort Avenue in his district, admiring the trees.
“The character of this street, of this block, would be much different without these trees,” he said, pointing.
On other streets, old maples grown tall and unwieldy, bisected by power lines. Those will have to come down soon, and Hollander wants to make sure they’re replaced.
If his ordinance becomes law, any tree that’s removed in the public rights-of-way along Louisville streets will be replaced by another one.
Next month, the Metro Council is expected to begin discussing the proposal. It would require property owners to replace trees they remove from public rights-of-way in an effort to help slow the decline of Louisville’s shrinking tree canopy.
Overall, Hollander’s district, which includes Clifton, Crescent Hill and parts of St. Matthews, is one of the leafier council districts. But the tree canopy is declining there, too. Citywide, the tree canopy declined three percent between 2004 and 2012. An assessment released in 2015 estimated the city was losing 54,000 trees a year.
And there are lots of reasons why.
“Mother Nature is a huge factor,” said Louisville Urban Forester Erin Thompson. “Mother Nature decides if a tree’s going to fall, sometimes, even though it’s perfectly healthy. Mother Nature decides if a tree’s old and it’s past its prime, and it declines and it dies just like we humans do. That is probably one of the biggest factors.”
Add that to growing problems like the emerald ash borer, which is expected to kill tens of thousands of trees in the city over the next decade. Without action, Louisville is facing a future with fewer trees. And this is a problem.
Besides generally improving quality of life, trees have a bunch of other benefits.
“Not just [a tree’s] aesthetic value and the nature it welcomes in, but also like stormwater management and reduction of heat islands,” Thompson said. “Lowering our utility bills.”
Which is why Hollander and Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton introduced a new tree protection ordinance last month.
Louisville already has a tree ordinance that’s been on the books since 1988. It says the trees in public rights-of-way — like the strip of green between the sidewalk and the street — are the responsibility of private property owners. You need to get a permit to plant, prune or remove trees in the public right-of-way.
But if the Metro Council approves the new law, one big thing will change:
“And that’s the simple rule that if a tree comes out of one of these public spaces — Metro-owned property or the public right-of-way — a tree should go back,” Hollander said.
The ordinance requires a one-for-one replacement — unless there’s an extenuating circumstance — on any tree removed on Metro-owned property or in public rights-of-way. This is an effort to staunch the bleeding and slow the city’s net tree loss.
The proposed ordinance would also set up an escrow fund to help property owners who can’t afford to remove a dead or dangerous tree on their public right-of-way. Under current law, property owners are already required to remove hazardous trees on the public right-of-way, but Hollander said tree removal can be expensive and many low-income people can’t afford it.
“That dead tree is not helping anybody,” Hollander said. “But it’s an obligation that is difficult under current law for many people to fulfill, and we think this will help.”
Hollander said the ordinance has a good chance of passing, and Mayor Greg Fischer supports it. Greater Louisville Inc. — the city’s chamber of commerce — has expressed concerns about legislating tree planting in the past, but a spokeswoman said the group hasn’t made a decision about this ordinance yet.
Republicans on the Metro Council have also shared concerns about private property rights, which Hollander says are unfounded.
“This ordinance affects private property in extremely limited ways, most of which are already existing law,” he said.
The ordinance has two provisions that would affect private property: one that’s already on the books would allow the city to require a private tree to be removed if it’s determined to be a public nuisance. Another would allow a property owner to ask for a special tree on their property to be designated historical or as a unique specimen. In that case, the tree would be protected from removal from future property owners.
Hollander doesn’t anticipate that one being used very often.
But as the tree assessment found, there’s a lot more tree planting potential on private land in Louisville than public land. And while planting trees only on Metro-owned land and in public rights-of-way will help, it’s only part of the solution.
Urban Forester Thompson says right now, her office is focusing on voluntary measures to encourage private tree planting — like tree donations.
“We’ve done some tree giveaways,” she said. “We had some great sponsors a couple years back that helped us purchase trees. Now we’re able to use some of our city funding to provide trees.”
She said the ordinance is a step in the right direction, even though it doesn’t go as far as other cities — like Atlanta — that require trees removed on private property to be replaced, too.
And Hollander said it’s possible the council would eventually change the Land Development Code to require more trees in new developments.