Many new, 2-story houses line Brookhaven’s Grant Drive, a short street that stretches in a curvy pattern from Dresden Drive to a cul-de-sac at Alta Vista Drive. But the street also includes many older homes being eyed by developers wanting to profit from the city’s residential building boom.
One such house is 1515 Grant Drive. The 2,100-square-foot teardown home was built in 1948. Mary Alice Bell Hedden, who owns the half-acre lot the house is on, grew up there. Her brother lived there until he unexpectedly died in December.
She is asking the city to rezone the property so it can subdivided into two lots and have two new houses built there.
But the City Council balked at its September meeting, pushing back the vote on the request to Nov. 26.
There are two towering oak trees in the front yard and a thicket of trees in its backyard. And as the city prepares to pay a consultant to rewrite its tree ordinance next year to directly address that kind of rezoning, Councilmember John Park asked Hedden and her husband to come up with a tree preservation plan to present at the November meeting.
The lot was previously two lots and Park said he felt comfortable making the request of the couple.
“In exchange for giving them the zoning back, we want to preserve trees,” he said.
Hedden said she was disappointed but is fulfilling the city’s request.
“I’m a property owner who is grieving my brother’s death,” she said. “I’m seeking closure. But I’m willing to do whatever the city wishes me to do.”
Currently, a developer only has to pay into a tree fund to cut down all the trees on the site at 1515 Grant Drive.
The city’s hot real estate market has led to an increase in the rezoning of older residential neighborhood lots into smaller lots. In the past two years, more than 200 houses in the city have been torn down and replaced with new homes, Park said.
“This is a growing problem because there has been a lot of redevelopment in District 2 of houses built in the ’50s,” he said.
“It will become an even bigger problem when developers start looking at houses built in the ’60s and ’70s in District 1,” he said.
Payment into the fund for a “specimen tree” is $200 per inch of the tree’s diameter from about 4.5 feet above the ground. The city doesn’t clearly define what a specimen tree is in the ordinance. Generally speaking, they are trees planted to be a focus of attention on a site, such an oak in the middle of a yard.
On a recent afternoon at 1515 Grant Drive, the sun shined through the branches thick with green leaves of the two oak trees standing some 30 feet into the sky, casting long shadows over the house, yard and across the street.
Two surveyors hired by the Heddens were on the property measuring boundaries. One surveyor measured the circumference of the oak trees. One was 34 inches around at chest height, the other 32 inches.
New houses mixed with a few older houses line both sides of the street. Bright orange erosion control fencing surrounded the barren front yard of a house under construction across the street.
Allowing developers to pay into the tree fund is called “alternative compliance” and is the bane of the city’s current tree ordinance, Park said.
A new tree ordinance could require developers to submit a “tree save” plan as part of rezoning request. Such a plan would include any shifts in a site plan needed to build outside required setbacks to save trees on the property.
Tying tree protection to rezoning also gives the city enforcement authority, Park said.
Developers often decide to pay into the tree fund instead of seeking a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals because going before the ZBA can be a months-long process, Park said.
Requiring developers to submit a tree-saving plan to the city as part of rezoning request would streamline the process, he said, because the City Council could then grant variances needed to build outside setbacks to save trees.
“[The city] would like to basically save trees with new regulations, and public debate and education,” he said.
“But there will be a tradeoff because [homeowners] won’t be able to have the perfect suburban plot anymore.”
Don Neustadt, a home-builder, lives near Grant Drive and spoke in support of the Heddens’ request to rezone the house at the September council meeting. He said he was disappointed the council put off the vote for two months because they have a builder interested in the property.
“Trees have nothing to do with zoning,” he said. “As a property rights’ advocate, what they did stomps all over me.”
Neustadt said he knows many people in the community are upset about trees being cut down for new houses.
“Unfortunately, that’s how it is,” he said. “Our parents lived in houses that had trees cut down, our parents’ parents’ lived in houses that had trees cut down.”
He said the city’s tree ordinance is strict enough. Hitting developers with more restrictions affects affordability as well as stepping on property rights, he said.
“The city is treading on thin ice,” Neustadt said.
Sandy Murray of the Brookhaven Tree Conservancy said 90% of the city’s tree canopy is located on single-family residential lots and protecting them must be a priority.
Besides the buy-out option, her main issue with the current ordinance is that it requires developers to keep a maximum 120 inches of trees per acre. For a half-acre, that’s 60 inches and as the lots become smaller, the inches become fewer.
“If you want to build on a quarter-acre lot, that leaves little room for trees,” she said.
But what the new ordinance must do more than anything, she said, is plan for trees at the beginning of the development process.
“We want trees to be planned for before any permits are given, that [developers] get nothing until they have a plan for every tree on their lot,” she said.
This story has been updated to correct that a tree’s diameter is the measurement used to determine its size, not its circumference. To get the diameter, a surveyor measures a tree’s circumference and that number is divided by pi (3.14). This results in what is called the “diameter at breast height,” the standard measurement for trees.