Environment

Developers will have to preserve more of the city’s tree canopy when building subdivisions and strip malls thanks to new rules from Louisville’s Metro Council.

What started with a non-binding resolution and community meetings has snowballed into bipartisan, compromise legislation that protects more of Louisville’s trees.

But it is not likely to reverse the trend of the city’s shrinking urban canopy.

Republican council members say the rules strike a balance between conservation and private property rights. Democratic Co-sponsor Councilman Bill Hollander (D-9) says the measure is “not perfect” but a substantial improvement over existing rules.

“For the first time, there would be a requirement that on many pieces of land you would not be able to clear-cut the land, but would need to preserve some trees,” Hollander said.

Metro Council passed the ordinance on a 25-1 vote Thursday amending Louisville’s land development code, on the eve of Arbor Day. The ordinance moves to the desk of Mayor Greg Fischer, who tweeted his support Thursday evening.

Climate change, urban heat, air pollution and flooding are among the other challenges nipping at the heels of Louisville amid the coronavirus pandemic. The city’s urban forest helps alleviate these problems, providing shade, improving air quality and capturing stormwater.

Louisville loses about 54,000 trees annually to economic development, age, storms and disease, according to a 2015 study. City residents are planting trees too, but experts say plantings are not happening fast enough to make up for the losses. And as Democratic Metro Councilman Brandon Coan (D-5) likes to say, the city can’t plant its way out of this crisis.

The new ordinance requires new subdivisions and commercial developments that have lots with more than 50% tree canopy to preserve at least 20% of those trees in most cases. In certain cases, developers would be allowed to pay a fee in lieu of planting or preserving trees. Hollander said the fee-in-lieu should only be used as a last resort.

Back in 2017, the Metro Council passed an ordinance that requires any tree removed from the public right-of-way to be replaced. The new rules go further, requiring street trees for all land uses along public rights of way.

The ordinance also has stipulations for re-zoning properties and permit applications to close possible loopholes. In those cases, sites are ineligible if 20% or more of the site has been clear-cut in the last 24 months.

But loopholes remain. Democratic Councilman Markus Winkler (D-17) says the new rules create a potential “moral hazard” wherein a property owner clear-cuts land prior to entering into a purchase agreement. However, Winker said the city could potentially decline to approve the zoning changes if such problems arise.

“While that risk exists: One, it’s relatively small to begin with and two, this doesn’t eliminate our ability to address this if in fact we do see that happen,” Winkler said.

Republican Councilman Anthony Piagentini (D-19) said the legislation balances the need to preserve open spaces with the need to grow the economy and protect the rights of private property owners.

“I want to congratulate folks on finding a very tight rope to walk and I think this does that,” Piagentini said.

Democratic Councilwoman Donna Purvis (D-5) was the sole member to vote against the ordinance. Purvis said that she respects the need to to preserve tree canopy, but remains concerned about property owners who may not have the financial resources to maintain trees on or near their properties.

“I understand the need of having a tree canopy but I really wish there was some kind of way we could address these private property owners when these trees become problematic,” Purvis said.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.