August 03, 2015

Developers Take Different Tacks on Tree Preservation

By Andrew Ashby
– The Daily News –

It’s easy to paint developers and builders as the bad guys, especially when they knock down a stand of trees as the first step in building a neighborhood. But some developers make it a point to work around trees, while many others have practical reasons for clearing space.

“They don’t do it because they hate trees; they do it because it saves money and they have to develop a property they can build on,” said Tim Wilson, president of the Memphis Area Homebuilders Association’s executive board and president of residential construction at Chamberlain and McCreary Inc., a Memphis-based homebuilding company. “Everybody wants to leave the trees. However, it doesn’t bring a lot of value to the house when you get ready to sell it.”

A developer’s stance on clear-cutting trees often depends on landscape and lot sizes. It’s easier to save trees on larger lots because they allow more room to work.

“If a developer goes in and he decides he’s going to do two-acre lots, trees are no issue and they’re going to stay,” Wilson said. “If a builder decides the best use for a piece of property is 40-foot lots, then the trees are coming down, every single one of them. That’s because there is no room for a house and a tree on a 40-foot lot.”

Leaving trees doesn’t usually add value to homes, Wilson said. Mature trees might help a house sell quicker by boosting curb appeal, but don’t earn homebuilders any more money.

“The appraiser doesn’t care if there is a tree on the property or not,” Wilson said. “He’s still going to value the house the same with or without the tree.”

Not all developers and builders use the clear-cutting philosophy. Gary Thompson, vice president of Boyle Investment Co., said the real estate development company has a long history of maintaining trees in its various projects. For example, when Boyle was building the Cloisters of River Oaks in East Memphis in 1996, it redesigned an entire portion of the subdivision to save a patch of old trees.

“What you end up with is something that looks like it’s been there for a long time,” Thompson said. “I think people are willing to pay a little more for that.”

Before Thompson started working at Boyle in 1995, he was a landscape architect licensed in Tennessee and Arkansas. He wanted to work for Boyle because the company has a different building philosophy, he said. While some developers want to spit out houses as fast as possible, focusing on quantity over quality – and clearing trees – Boyle doesn’t.

“We’ve always sort of tended towards the quality end of things,” Thompson said. “For us, people are willing to pay more to be in a place that seems thoughtful. Clear-cutting gives you a lot of flexibility because you start with a clean slate. It doesn’t require a lot of thought.”

At the Schilling Farms development in Collierville, Thompson and other Boyle designers worked to save trees whenever possible. The company wanted a middle school placed at a certain spot in the development, but couldn’t fit it in without clearing some of the few large trees in the area. The company bought additional property to fit the school into the development without destroying the trees.

Boyle also uses professional arborists when working around mature trees. The workers prune the tree roots carefully instead of using bulldozers, which could rip them. The arborists also apply a chemical to the cut roots to add protection from insects, helping increase the trees’ chances of survival.

“It’s an involved process,” Thompson said. “That’s why many people don’t do it. They don’t have the expertise or don’t want to take the time.”

Although an appraiser might not figure mature trees into the cost of a home, it’s something most potential homebuyers notice.

“Most of the time, you drive up in front of the house and they say, ‘Oh, I love the trees,’ or ‘Gosh, where are the trees?'” said Bobbi Gillis, executive vice president of FaxonGillis Homes Inc. who has worked in the Memphis real estate market for 30 years. “It’s usually one or the other.”

Mature trees add to a house’s curb appeal, which is an important part of selling, she said.

When Gillis first started in real estate, many of the houses being built in Hickory Hill belonged to the Federal Housing Authority, also known as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The properties were constructed under certain building requirements, such as the types of materials that could be used. Also, the FHA required builders to plant a small tree in each home’s front yard – and it has made a difference in the neighborhood, Gillis said.

“If you drive through those neighborhoods now, it’s amazing what just that one requirement did for those communities,” she said. “They looked barren when the subdivision was first going in, but just the fact they put a tree in every yard really added to the way community looked later on.”

Residents in some neighborhoods realize the importance of mature trees. Much of Central Gardens’ character comes from its tree-lined streets in Midtown Memphis, said Hutton Easley, immediate past president of the Central Gardens Association, a neighborhood preservation organization. The CGA has worked to preserve its mature trees, but also started a free tree program for neighborhood residents in 1999. The organization has planted more than 200 trees to replace older ones that have died or been damaged by storms.

“The tree canopy in the neighborhood was aging, and it was pretty obvious that we needed to start planting new trees if we wanted to keep that tree canopy,” Easley said.

The CGA has used several different landscaping companies to plant the trees. For the past two years, it has chosen Stringer’s Garden Centers and Landscaping Co. Last year, the company offered six different tree types to residents: autumn blaze maple, a fast-growing maple known for its fall colors; nuttall oak, an oak that is good for poorly drained locations; drake elm, a fast-growing tree that gives good shade; Japanese zelkova, a smaller and ornate tree; bald cypress, a fast-growing tree that tends to grow in a pyramid shape; and trident maple, a moderately growing tree with yellow flowers in the spring.

The CGA also helps plant trees at businesses along Union Avenue, even though the roadway is outside Central Gardens’ boundaries. It has sponsored more than 12 trees at businesses on Union, including the WMC-TV Channel 5 studios at 1960 Union Ave., the Nineteenth Century Club at 1433 Union Ave. and the Exchange Club Family Center at 2180 Union Ave.

But tree preservation isn’t reserved for neighborhoods. Some cities also have focused on it. Germantown might have the best track record in the area, having been a participant in the National Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program for the past 14 years.

To qualify, a city must have a tree board or department, a tree care ordinance, a community forestry program with an annual budget of at least $2 per resident and an Arbor Day observance and declaration.

The Germantown Tree Board is made up of representatives from other city commissions, including the Neighborhood Preservation Commission, the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Planning Commission, the Design Review Commission and the Beautification Commission.

“We changed the tree board in 2003 to have talent and expertise from others who have a vested interest in tree preservation,” said Pam Beasley, director of Germantown’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The tree board meets bi-monthly to oversee the city’s urban forestry program, review ordinance changes and help implement the city’s Arbor Day program.

Germantown celebrates Arbor Day on the first Friday in March by working with schools to promote tree preservation. This includes a program on the importance of planting trees and how communities should preserve green spaces. Also, students plant trees on school grounds.

The city also runs a “Living Legacy Tree fund,” allowing citizens to contribute money to plant trees in public spaces.