The Alliance for Cape Fear Trees and 18 other local organizations and businesses are concerned that rapid growth and development are having a negative impact on the area’s environmental and economic health because of the loss of mature trees and natural habitat. The concerns have been communicated in writing to the Wilmington City Council and the New Hanover County Commission.
As surmised from Letters to the Editor and Buzz comments, many in our community are deeply concerned about the threat to trees and their natural habitats posed by current and future development plans, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. We support the recent Green Infrastructure Center’s study recommendations that look at trees as a natural and effective way of mitigating problems and providing benefits. Greater tree protection and preservation is essential, as trees provide both aesthetic and economic value to the community. A healthy tree canopy provides an improved sense of place and enhances quality of life for our residents. In a healthy environment, buildings and roads are balanced and complemented by nature, attracting both tourists and appropriate businesses to the area.
In our current process, increased population and visitation lead to more development and additional tree loss. This is not helping us become the community we all envision. Trees and the natural environment can be an instrumental part of our economic success.
Environmentally, trees improve soil quality and bind it together. They aid in the creation and protection of critical wetland environments and related fisheries. As seen during Hurricane Florence, stands of trees deflect wind in a way that structures and individual trees do not. Trees remove water from the ground, assisting with stormwater abatement and flood protection. Without trees, we lose habitats for animals and plants – some rare and specific to our area – while creating problems such as stormwater flooding from surface runoff. Trees also provide shade and protection from winds, saving energy costs.
Protecting and planting appropriate native trees is critical for our community. The finite and rapidly dwindling tree acreage on the New Hanover County/Wilmington peninsula could be retained and replenished in the coming years. We advocate for stronger ordinances specifically for tree protection in both residential and business locations.
Our zoning and development site plan review processes could be more clearly written to require a higher percentage of canopy trees retained on developed property. Clear-cutting, as seen for sundry storage facilities, apartments, single-family housing developments and the future Eastwood and Military Cutoff developments must not be allowed.
Instead, developers could be better incentivized to retain trees in place and plant additional after construction. Specifying the planting of certain types of native trees could help increase our urban canopy. Smaller and understory trees such as crape myrtles should not be replacements for our native live oaks and tall pine trees. In addition, our governments’ enforcement of transgressions should have teeth – real consequences for non-compliance. Offenders should be charged (not fined) appropriately for the replacement value of trees cut, so the City and County could use those funds to replace trees lost.
We also continue to advocate for an ongoing increase of funds for tree planting and maintenance programs to build our important natural infrastructure. More green medians, including trees, within infrastructure plans would offset a portion of recent losses due to Hurricane Florence. We suggest that a green-space bond could be earmarked for replacement of trees in public spaces and their subsequent maintenance. Proper annual maintenance will ensure that we do not lose our trees so easily to storms in the future.
We also need more education for residents, especially newcomers, regarding the value and correct selection and placement of trees. After storms pass, we see fear of potential damage in a future storm resulting in many residents unnecessarily removing trees from their property.
The Alliance for Cape Fear Trees and other concerned groups are aware of the headwinds of development pressure and population growth. Landowners want positive returns from their property investment, and our governments need the additional revenues. However, preserving tree canopies is not antithetical to growth. Trees enhance properties, increasing their value. In recent years, the City and County have made great strides in improving our community. We deeply appreciate that work and ask that they continue and accelerate that progress.
We are asking now for a better balance between environmental protection and the rapid, unchecked growth we currently see. Our economy and quality of life depend on our environment and its trees.
Constance N. Parker is chair of the Alliance for Cape Fear Trees, which worked with eighteen area organizations on this opinion piece.