First published on April 6, 2012

Most land developers who have developed a project with existing trees have likely faced city ordinances that require a tree inventory, a determination of tree removals, and a provision for replacing tree losses with new plantings. Depending on the municipality, these requirements can range from reasonable to arguably excessive. While most would agree that tree preservation is desirable and necessary, the financial burden and site implications of providing areas for replanting or reforestation can pose challenges.

In a number of past projects, heavy tree replacement requirements were incurred due to tree removals of lower quality species that matured in unmaintained areas. Most of these tree species were categorized as “pioneering” species, which aggressively self-seed, are typically fast growing, and re-establish quickly. In most cities, these same species of trees are on the do-not-plant list and cannot be replaced in kind.

Some municipalities’ tree replacement ordinances exclude some of these pioneering species from replacement calculations, while some treat them no differently than a higher quality oak or sugar maple tree. With the potential disastrous spread of Emerald Ash Borer across many parts of the country, some cities have elected to eliminate the Ash tree from tree loss totals while others still count Ash as significant trees needing replacement.

During the last phase of a recent multi-phased project, pre-existing tree inventory and replacement calculations had been determined under a city code that didn’t exclude Ash or other pioneering species. The heavy tree replacement requirements and the limited locations in which to plant new trees drove the developer into designating reforestation areas in open spaces, just to meet code. We successfully argued that 1) the majority tree losses were pioneering species and ash, 2) these were not allowed to be replanted under city code, and 3) these same trees will quickly re-establish themselves without intervention in these unmaintained open spaces. The city agreed to revisit the tree replacement requirements and, in this case, resulted in nearly $225,000 in savings to the developer by simply making partial allowances for Boxelder and Ash tree removal.

Depending on the circumstances, it may be worth requesting additional consideration from local authorities or agencies with regards to the type of trees requiring replacement, keeping in mind the potential for natural reestablishment of many of these tree species on their own.