Katsura Tree (Photo by Paul Meyer)

Katsura Tree (Photo by Paul Meyer)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Last fall, Chestnut Hill was magically transformed into the world of Dr. Seuss. The Lorax was in town, and his message to residents was simple: People need to stop caring about “thneeds” and start caring about trees.

Philadelphia’s recently revised zoning code attempts to do just that. The new code claims to promote “sound planning principles, sustainable and environmentally responsible practices, growth and economic development, and fair and consistent procedures.”

While Philadelphia’s new zoning code still has several glitches, it attempts to “promote safe and compatible development” and avoid “adverse impacts and degradation of the environment.”

Celeste Hardester, community manager at the Chestnut Hill Community Association said the code contains “a jewel” that many people are not aware of.

The “jewel,” she pointed out, is that the new code contains specific standards for the preservation of “heritage trees,”which are defined as trees of any species listed on the Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Heritage Tree Species List, such as the American chestnut tree or oak tree with diameter breast heights of at least 24 inches.

Development standards for open space and natural standards are laid out in section 14-705 of the code.

The code states says that heritage trees “may not be removed from any property unless the applicant obtains a special exception approval.”

And that approval will only be granted if (1) the applicant replaces the removed tree in accordance with tree replacement requirements, (2) if the criteria of special exception approval have been met, and (3) if one of the following requirement are met: a certified arborist has determined that the tree is “dead, damaged, diseased, or a threat to public health or safety,” that the Streets Department has determined that the tree “interferes with the provision of public services or constitutes a hazard to traffic, bicyclists, or pedestrians, or that the applicant has demonstrated that the proposed development “cannot be practically redesigned to protect the heritage tree.”

Rebecca Corcoran Swanson, communications and policy officer for the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said this section of the zoning code [Preservation of Heritage Trees] only applies “when there is development of a property.” She said the code does not apply to “lots less than 5,000 square feet and lots with single-family or two-family dwellings, parks, open space, or urban agriculture.”

It is important to note that this section of the code does not apply to most residents’ private property. In researching this article, several residents remarked that the code was not being enforced because it was too vague.

Richard Redding, director of the City Planning Commission’s Planning Division, said “to a novice eye, it might appear that L&I is not enforcing the code when in fact it is.”

He added that the intent of the code was to “preserve as much green coverage as we could.”

Hardester said the code “raises a sense of awareness about the quality of life that trees provide.”

“I feel that people can be blind to them until they are missing,” Hardester said.

She added that the “jewel” in the zoning code is a long-range attempt to preserve not only trees but “our heritage.” She said the heritage trees we have now are “the result of what people did decades and decades – if not a century or more – ago.”

“Basically, it’s a heritage that we’re severing from future generations,” Hardester said.

Growing a greener city

Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department, said his agency was strongly involved in the zoning code process, adding that the concept of heritage tree preservation was a way to sustain larger native trees.

He said one of the components of “GREEN 2015,” Mayor Michael A. Nutter’s ambitious plan to make Philadelphia one of the greenest cities in the country, is to “sustain and increase our tree canopy in all sections of the city to 30 percent by 2025.”

Currently, the average tree canopy coverage in Philadelphia is a little over 20 percent, according to Focht, but he noted that it varies greatly across the city.

“In Chestnut Hill, there is about 38 percent [tree canopy] coverage,” Focht said, “but in sections of South Philadelphia, it can be as little as one percent. The goal in a place like Chestnut Hill is to sustain the existing tree canopy so it doesn’t dip below 30 percent.”

He said in neighborhoods similar to Chestnut Hill the focus is on “sustaining the health” of existing trees.

“Which is where heritage tree components come in, so that development will take into consideration these mature trees,” Focht said, “while in other neighborhoods, it’s more about planting trees.”

Ken LeRoy, a local arborist and horticulturist, said heritage trees “tell a story.” The Great Elm at Shackamaxon – also known as the Penn Treaty Elm – was one such tree.

According to legend, William Penn and Native Americans met under the Great Elm Tree at Shackamaxon, the site of the present day Penn Treaty Park, and for centuries, the Penn Treaty Elm was celebrated as a reminder of the principles Pennsylvania was founded on, until it fell in a storm in 1810.

In 1827, the Penn Society erected an Obelisk, a memorial monument commemorating Penn’s Treaty at the former site of the Great Elm Tree.

“These trees are part of our history,” LeRoy said.

LeRoy cited Fernhill Park as another example of Philadelphia’s “tree-ific history.” Fernhill was originally part of Louis Clapier’s 19th century estate. LeRoy said there are still trees there that were planted by Clapier, as well as others that date back to the 1800s and earlier.

LeRoy said some municipalities are very strict about cutting down heritage trees, even though many of them are located on private property.

“One might think ‘well, this is my property, these are my trees, why can’t I cut them down?’” LeRoy said. “The township may say whose heritage trees have value to the overall community – so unless you have a good reason you can’t cut it down. The reasoning behind it is that while you may temporarily own those trees – you’re not going to live forever and those trees may outlive you.”

LeRoy said for such codes to be successful, a monetary value must be assigned to a tree. A certified horticulturist should come out and evaluate the tree. The monetary value can be determined based on how rare it is, its location, species and health. He added that public safety is always a priority.

LeRoy said similar codes have resulted in “an increase in awareness about what trees do for the community.” He added that recently volunteers planted trees along the Germantown Avenue.

“Those trees are doing well, and they are really filling it,” LeRoy said. “It’s just a wonderful tribute to the community that these folks worked so hard – particularly in the business district.”

LeRoy said he couldn’t imagine Chestnut Hill without its brilliant display of colors. While it may be annoying to rake leaves, trees are at the heart of Chestnut Hill.