Cover Story: Canopy or sprawl?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Ask anybody what makes Charlotte special and sooner or later they'll talk about the trees.

It may surprise you, since 1985 the city's lost half the trees it once had.

A report released to the public Tuesday is designed to nudge city leaders to strengthen a tree ordinance that's been around since the 70s.

The 3-month study of Charlotte's trees shows the extent of the problem.. the extent of what we're losing.

They not only bring beauty to our city.  They make us feel better about life.. and living here.

But we're losing more of what we hold so dear.

As a New South city that for years added tens of thousands of newcomers every year our trees and greenspace are increasingly being gobbled up to make room for homes and shopping centers.

A report from the watch group American Forests and commissioned by the City Council found between 1985 and 2008 Mecklenburg county lost 33% of its tree canopy; the city of Charlotte lost 49%.

The 16-page report has the best images yet of the loss.  Satellite imagery and high resolution aerial photos show large areas of red which represent pavement and roof tops - urban living.

"These are the areas we're interested in protecting our existing tree canopy in."  Tom Johnson, senior urban forestry specialist for the city of Charlotte says the city's now taking a corridor and wedges approach development.

The corridors-- those areas already developed-- are where the city wants to focus future development and create a more walkable and traffic friendly environment.

Wedges are the green areas on the map between the corridors where they want to try to maintain tree canopy and greenspace.

"I would say we're one of the better developing cities in the region certainly we have some good ordinances. And a lot of other municipalities look to Charlotte to model their ordinances after," says Johnson.

Since 1978 Charlotte has had an ordinance that protects trees and it's gotten tougher over time.

A single-family homeowner is required to save a minimum of 10% of the trees on a tract of land being developed.  The ordinance that applies to commercial property, the city is considering amending - requiring a 15% tree save.  But some developers are fighting it saying it would make development too costly.

Neighbors just like the trees.

"I think Charlotte is known for trees.. particularly in the spring and to lose it means losing part of Charlotte," said Bob Knight of Charlotte.

The city doesn't require private developers do anything it doesn't do.  Each year the city plants and maintains tens of thousands of trees along city streets, in the right of way.

They not only are aesthetically pleasing experts say they remove huge amounts of air pollution, slow stormwater runoff and help reduce heat from the urban environment.

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