Rehoboth Beach planners are looking at refocusing the city's tree ordinance on the kinds of trees homeowners plant, not merely the number.
The city commissioners have established the goal of developing a 40 percent tree canopy – the amount of land shaded by trees when viewed from above – over the next 10 years.
Commissioner Brian Patterson presented ideas at the commission's Oct. 11 meeting that he said would keep the best aspects of the tree ordinance, while simplifying it, make the ordinance easier to understand and fairer for users.
“We really ought to be refocusing this ordinance around the kinds of trees that provide the public benefits we are seeking,” Patterson said.
To that end, he proposed focusing on large and medium shade trees, eliminating protection for trees smaller than 5 inches in diameter. This, Patterson said, would prevent private property owners from planting small trees such as crape myrtles to meet the requirement of three trees on a lot. As a compromise for homeowners, he proposed allowing credit for line trees, trees located near or on property lines, and street trees, only if the property owner maintains the trees.
Patterson said the ordinance should focus not on the number of trees on a lot, but on the species of trees. He said the city should encourage homeowners to plant trees from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s list of native trees, as well as trees recommended by the city arborist.
Currently, the city has a dedicated tree fund that uses proceeds from the mitigation of trees to plant trees on public lands. However, how much an individual property owner pays during the mitigation process is not defined. To simplify things, Patterson recommended a specified fee, not yet determined, so that everyone would pay the same amount into the fund. So far, trees purchased with mitigation funds have been planted on public land, but after the 2011 tree planting project, which saw more than 150 trees planted on city property, land available for additional planting is limited.
Patterson recommended allowing property owners to mitigate lost trees by planting street trees, that would be maintained by the property owner.
“I don’t think anyone wants someone to buy their way out of the tree ordinance,” he said.
Another mitigation idea was to require property owners to replace trees on a tree-by-tree basis, not on an inch-by-inch basis as the current ordinance requires.
Patterson’s proposal would take appeals of tree permits out of the hands of the Parks and Shade Tree Commission, and place them before the Board of Adjustment. He said he has not liked the approach of the commission, which has overturned most denied tree removal permits that have come before it over the last five years. Patterson said in many of those cases the commission ruled without taking testimony from the property owner.
Patterson said he would like to see the tree ordinance moved to the zoning code; the board of adjustment would then make rulings based on the law.
After months of grasping the background of Rehoboth Beach’s tree ordinance, the planning commission is now setting about putting ideas to paper, with the idea of having a draft ordinance by January.
Chairman Preston Littleton said the commission has not agreed to anything yet, but liked proposals put forth by Patterson. He has tasked Patterson with fleshing out his ideas into a draft that the commission would then refine.
The commission is expected to deliver recommended revisions to the tree ordinance to the city commissioners. Littleton said he did not know at this point when that report would come, but he expects about two to three sections, with an assessment of the ordinance, opportunities for tree plantings and then a redrafted tree ordinance.