American Forests, the country’s oldest national nonprofit conservation organization, has regularly included Charlotte on its list of 10 best cities for urban forests. The upper 40s is considered a great score for a major American city and Charlotte scored 49% in 2013. But since then, the Queen City tree canopy score has been headed in the wrong direction, dropping 4 points to 45%.
The City of Charlotte has struggled to balance new development with tree preservation. In far too many cases, development wins. That’s why the city’s 2040 comprehensive plan seeks to revise Charlotte's tree ordinance and implement preservation and planting requirements. Unless the 2040 plan becomes law rather quickly, it may well not get the chance.
HB 496, a provision inserted into the state budget by Rep. James Boles, a Republican from Moore County, would prohibit local governments from writing and adopting tree-protection ordinances without approval of state lawmakers.
“No local government regulations regulating the removal of trees from private property are enforceable unless expressly authorized by local act of the General Assembly,” states the provision, which first appeared in the fifth edition of the budget bill, on page 37 of the 671-page legislation. The provision would allow existing tree-protection rules to remain.
The proposal has sparked opposition from municipalities who argue it will impede local residents’ ability to make decisions that best serve their local needs. Environmentalists say the GOP measure would accelerate tree canopy loss in a fast-growing state where rising average temperatures and extreme heat events are stressing both urban and rural communities.
Communities across North Carolina address tree protection and retention in a variety of different ways. Some towns don't have any unified development or zoning ordinances to protect their forestry while many other local governments have tree replacement provisions. Still, some locales allow credit towards landscaping requirements to preserve existing trees and exempt specific land uses from tree protection and planting requirements. HB 496 would give the General Assembly the final say over any local tree-protection ordinances.
Low-income areas in cities across the state are more likely to be hotter than their wealthier counterparts, and those areas are disproportionately communities of color. Beyond aesthetics, trees play a number of important roles, especially in a world of increasingly extreme weather patterns tied to climate change.
The significant economic and environmental benefits include capturing stormwater, reducing air pollution, soil erosion and the heat-island effect in more developed areas. Trees and vegetation that directly shade buildings save on energy costs.
In urban heat areas, trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration, the sum of water evaporation and transpiration from a surface area to the atmosphere. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials. Evapotranspiration can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2–9°F.
Other environmental provisions in the budget bill would bar all local stormwater ordinances and loosen regulations on the billboard advertising industry. The fate of HB 496 and the rest of the state budget could be decided within the next several weeks. Gov Roy Cooper has previously opposed measures that would usurp the power of local officials and seems inclined to prevent this measure from becoming law.