Rehoboth planners want input on tree ordinance

Commission weighs city goals against private property rights
The Rehoboth Beach Planning Commission has laid out a game plan to gather information with the goal of updating the city's tree ordinance. The commission hopes to clear up confusion over what the ordinance requires and how it is enforced. BY RYAN MAVITY
July 3, 2013

The Rehoboth Beach Planning Commission has established a game plan for revising the city’s tree ordinance, and like an oak tree in the Pines, it's going to take a while to develop.

The commission is conducting a long-term study to get a deeper understanding of the ordinance; Chairman Preston Littleton said he is not on a timeline; the plan is to solicit  information from tree experts, building and licensing officials, arborists, homebuilders, surveyors, city officials and the general public.

The commission has already held a "Tree 101” workshop conducted by arborist Bryan Hall to understand trees and how they work and is now working on a questionnaire to be sent to homeowners and neighbors who have gone through the city’s tree permitting process. Besides talking with builders and arborists who work within the city, Littleton said the commission plans to hold public hearings to get more information from the community.

“We need public input on how they are affected by the existing code,” he said.

Commissioner David Mellon said the commission's work is a response to public complaints about various aspects of the tree ordinance: that it is unfair, confusing and can be circumvented.

Mellon said the commission has taken a back-to-basics approach, asking whether it is possible to have three trees on a lot, as mandated in the ordinance, while also meeting the city's tree canopy goals. Put together, the pieces will add up to give the commission a picture of what changes need to be made to the ordinance, Mellon said.

Individual commissioners have already begun conducting interviews with city officials, builders and arborists. The results of the commission's studies will be unveiled at the Friday, Aug. 9 regular meeting.

At the end of the day, Littleton said, he expects there to be some tweaking of the tree ordinance and other sections of the code relating to trees. The commission wants to have a firm and defensible rationalization for its positions, he said.

Among the proposals are investigating a computerized database for tree permits. Littleton said research conducted by Commissioner Bunky Markert showed the city keeps a file of tree-removal permits, but it has no central database of trees planted and removed.

Mellon and Delaware Forest Service officials are working on a system for mapping trees on public and private land. Littleton said the commission wants to know what percentage of the city’s tree canopy – the area of land shaded by trees when viewed from the air – is on public land versus private land.

The city commissioners have adopted the goal of 40 percent tree canopy cover within the next 10 years. Littleton said the commission is on board with the overall goal of maintaining or expanding the city's tree canopy; the question, he said, is whether that is possible under the existing code.

Littleton said the commission would like to conduct a historical analysis of tree canopy. Because the value of land in the city has gone up so much in recent years, he said, homeowners are maximizing the buildable area on a lot. As a result, he said, the amount of tree canopy on private land has dwindled.

“We want to quantify what the rate of change has been,” Littleton said. "Is there enough land to carry out some of these objectives?"

“We need to look at the impact on neighborhood character versus a more macro objective of making sure the city has 40 percent tree canopy,” Littleton said.

While the study still has a long way to go before it reaches the city commissioners, Mayor Sam Cooper said of the commission’s study,  “I hope what comes out of it is a definitive understanding of what we can do and what we can’t in the way of keeping trees.”



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