Planning Commission speaker

Conservationist Jeff Frank speaks before the Metro Planning Commission on Wednesday. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

The Metro Planning Commission Wednesday voted unanimously to approve amendments to the Land Development Code designed to improve Louisville’s declining tree canopy.

The recommendations now must be voted on by Metro Council to take effect.

The amendments included a number of changes, such as mandating that sites to be developed that currently contain 50% to 100% tree coverage must maintain at least 20% of the trees with any development. In addition, permits would have to be granted for tree removal on nonresidential and multifamily sites when a landscape plan is required.

Another amendment would be that development applications would not be permitted on sites where tree removal has occurred within the previous two years.

In addition, the amendments would mandate street trees in certain areas along with tree canopy coverage as high as 40% for residential areas, and 35% for multifamily and office, institutional and commercial developments. One minor change made by the commission was to lower the recommended requirements for industrial development to 25% from 30%.

Dozens showed up, with citizens and environmentalists urging the commissioners to approve, while some from the development community asserting many of the requirements are simply too strict and will not only cost them in development but also will drive up prices for their customers.

Tree Canopy Old Louisville

Some neighborhoods, such as Old Louisville, have well-maintained tree canopies. Many, however, have become heat islands. | Courtesy of Louisville Metro Office of Sustainability

The amendments are responses in part to a pair of studies conducted on Louisville’s tree canopy and heat management back in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

The studies showed that roughly 37% of Metro Louisville is covered by trees, with only 26% in the premerger portion of the city. That is lower than the American Forests recommendation of 40% while being higher than cities like Lexington and St. Louis and lower than Cincinnati and Nashville.

The studies showed that, at the current rate of loss, which is approximately 54,000 trees each year, the canopy would be reduced to as low as 21% by 2052. The biggest problem spots are downtown and portions of the city west of downtown.

“If we don’t do something today,” the local conservationist Jeff Frank told the commission, “we will never break that trend.”

Margaret Carreiro, a retired University of Louisville professor in the Department of Biology, warned that heat as the city experienced in mid-July would only persist if the tree canopy erosion is not addressed.

“It’s just going to keep getting worse,” she said. “[Trees] help mitigate the urban heat island effect. What we experienced last week is going to be the new normal.”

Treating trees as infrastructure was a common theme of those in favor of passing the amendments.

Developer Rocco Pigneri, however, warned the commission that for a residential project, a 40% tree canopy requirement is going to squeeze developers like himself and also drive up costs for potential home-buyers by as much as 10%. He said planning around more existing trees can cut down on land for development, and planning for new trees can be tricky thanks to spacing regulations and infrastructure, particularly in R-4 and R-5 developments, which have narrower plots.

Another developer called a requirement of one street tree per every 30 feet “absolutely unachievable” in such developments.

However, the amendments do propose a system for tree credits. Theoretically, if one development doesn’t meet the requirement and another project exceeds it, developers can mitigate to get certain projects done. The goal is to maintain an overall 40% canopy citywide.

One commissioner who showed hesitance in approving the amendments was David Tomes, who worried 40% canopy requirements could be difficult for certain developments, specifically by placing the burden on new developments and new property owners for an issue that has emerged over decades.

“We should allow for some flexibility in good design,” Tomes said.

The Metro Council last fall mandated that the Planning Commission make recommendations by this past March, however, and commission chair Vince Jarboe was determined, after months of public meetings and changes to the amendments, that the amendments would come to a vote.

“I don’t want to put it on the backs of developers,” Jarboe said, “but it’s time for us to send something to Metro Council.”

Commissioner Lula Howard pointed out that further amendments could be made down the road to achieve the city’s goal, calling the current set of amendments a “significant improvement” since being adjusted in response to public opinion.

“We’re not expecting everything to be perfect at this point,” she said, “but we have to start somewhere.”