Community

Some Louisville Metro Council members want to pass a law to protect more trees on publicly-owned land.

The proposed ordinance is being sponsored by Democratic council members Bill Hollander from District 9 and Cheri Bryant Hamilton from District 5. It comes more than a year after a 19-member Tree Advisory Committee, established by Mayor Greg Fischer, approved a sweeping draft ordinance to transform city policies on tree planting and maintenance.

The ordinance introduced Monday by Hollander and Hamilton mirrors elements of the commission’s recommended ordinance, but it largely limits control to “public trees,” or those trees sprouting from city owned or controlled land of those trees in the public right-of-way, according to a news release.

“It will focus attention on a problem we have, which is a declining tree population in Louisville,” Hollander said.

In fact, Louisville is losing about 54,000 trees every year, according to a 2015 city-funded report. The loss of local trees is the result of age, storms, pests and development. And the dwindling tree stock exasperates the city’s urban heat island effect, which is among the nation’s hottest.

Fewer trees in cities can also lead to more pollution and higher costs associated with stormwater runoff, according to the ordinance. Adopting new policy to guide the maintenance and planting of public trees is a step in addressing those issues, Hollander said.

Under the ordinance, the city’s division of community forestry would have “power and control” over public trees in Louisville, which includes planting, maintaining, removing and protecting such trees.

The division would have the power to grant or deny permits related to tree care or removal within the scope of the ordinance. The division could also order the removal of any tree on private property within Louisville Metro considered a public nuisance, under the proposed ordinance.

The division would also be required to develop a city-wide tree canopy assessment every five years, beginning in 2020.

The 2015 Louisville Urban Tree Canopy Assessment found the current tree canopy covers about 37 percent of the city.

The proposed ordinance would also require any public tree that’s removed to be replaced within one year, unless otherwise directed by the division of community forestry. And for those trees that are removed, the stumps must be removed within three months, unless otherwise directed.

The ordinance also limits plantings beneath overhead utility lines to trees that will mature no taller than 25 feet.

When it comes to maintaining these public trees, that falls on the “abutting property owner,” the proposed ordinance states. Those property owners must also obtain a permit before conducting any maintenance work.

Requiring private residents to care for public trees is a point of contention in Louisville Metro. because it can require citizens to foot the bill for public properties. To help remedy that issue, the proposed tree ordinance would establish a Community Forestry Escrow Fund that could help defray the cost to residents for “mandated tree removal.”

The proposed ordinance would also allow private property owners to petition for a tree on their property be designated as “historic” or “specimen,” which, if listed as such, would provide certain protections for that tree.

The ordinance also recommends issuing fines to violators of the new tree law of up to $20,000 for the most serious offense, removing a living public tree. Other fines range from $50 to $3,000.

The council is expected to take up discussion of the ordinance early next year.

Hollander, the majority Democratic caucus chair, said he expects little resistance to the ordinance from council colleagues.

“It’s a very common sense ordinance,” he said.

Asked for comment on the ordinance, the spokesman for the council’s minority Republican caucus, Steve Haag, said “we would be happy to review it.”

“Unfortunately, it seems the press has been privey (sic) to this much earlier that the actual members of the Metro Council,” said Haag.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.