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Tree, soil ordinance revisions approved at latest commissioner meeting
Photo by Madison Nickel — Unsplash

New standards for development meant to help preserve trees and greenspace have been approved in Forsyth County.

Forsyth County Commissioners discussed the county’s tree and soil ordinances during its regular meeting Thursday, May 6. Revisions for the tree and soil ordinances have been in the works for over a year and have seen six public hearings.

The revisions discussed at the meeting focused on changes to the ordinance regarding commercial, industrial and mixed-use districts. Previously, commissioners have worked with staff to revise the ordinances pertaining to residential districts only.

District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson said that she wanted to hear from the commercial side specifically because the “needs of those uses are different [from residential] and we have to recognize that.”

Regarding the tree ordinance and commercial, industrial and mixed-use districts, Forsyth County staff proposed to remove the necessity of a specimen tree survey before zoning has been approved. They also proposed to remove the post-development survey because the county arborist would be performing final inspections to make sure trees were correctly installed.

For the soil ordinance, residential developments on 25 acres or more would not be allowed to clear more than 20 contiguous acres in any single area, as well as no more than two non-contiguous areas. Staff proposed an allowed variance where the disturbance area could be pushed to a maximum of 25 acres, but that is only if there is a demonstrated hardship.

Per the ordinance, a hardship cannot mean that something is less costly to complete land disturbance if restrictions are varied or that the applicant has a personal circumstance in wanting relief that is unrelated to the property conditions.

Staff also proposed to conduct a stakeholder meeting after 12 months have passed to discuss effects of the revised ordinances and to see if any further refinements are recommended.

Modifications to the county’s unified development code, UDC, would be necessary to support the new ordinances along with an implementation delay of 90 days to make sure that both ordinances go into effect at the same time.

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While residential districts have been offering input about both tree and soil ordinances, Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills said that “through all the many, many meetings,” she did not feel like she had heard opinions from the commercial side.

“I wanted to hear from [the commercial side] because we were getting application after application of annexation,” Mills said. “And what happens in that annexation, if you truly care about trees … you should not want anybody to annex.”

Mills explained that when annexations happen, “you’re losing architectural control, you’re losing your sign ordinance [and] you’re losing mass grading.”

Semanson agreed and added that “some of those annexation requests have specifically involved requirements of the tree ordinance.”

Many residents were opposed to the proposed revisions of the tree and soil ordinances, including Federica Goldoni, who was worried about the proposed removal of the tree survey, stating that tree surveys were “an essential process” of saving trees.

Goldoni said that she did not believe the stormwater management and flood water systems were as effective without the help from existing trees.

She encouraged commissioners to “listen to the voice of Forsyth County residents and not the voice of a small number of non-resident developers.”

Goldoni asked for more discussion on the commissioners’ part and a possible postponement of a decision regarding the adoption of both ordinances.

Resident Kirk Wintersteen also spoke in opposition.

“I think it’s pretty obvious [with] these last few days earlier in this week when we had all this rain, we had a lot of stormwater run-off,” Wintersteen said. “We need to protect our trees and we need to reduce that stormwater run-off.”

Wintersteen said that he believed in increasing the preservation of existing trees and policing mass grading, but he also believed that the county needed to correct the economic development to include more.

Scott Evans, senior technology project manager with the Forsyth County Chamber, spoke in favor of the revisions to the ordinances. Evans said that it was the “goal in economic development” to have enough development in the county that people do not have to travel outside of the county for work.

In Evans’ argument, he said that many people have to travel “an hour and back” each day for work because many residents work in neighboring counties.

“We try to facilitate the creation of jobs here so people can have those two hours back in the afternoon and in the morning,” Evans said. “But we also know that we have to be good stewards of the landscape because what would it be if we did not have that quality of life [here].”

Evans said that he did not want to “disadvantage” Forsyth County by making commercial development difficult and expensive, but he also wanted to maintain the green atmosphere.

“We think that the draft … is the best possible effort,” Evans said. “…To keep the beautification of this landscape, but also not putting us at a disadvantage with our economic recruitment efforts.”

Commissioners agreed that there had to be some compromise between the residential and commercial districts regarding the tree and soil ordinances so that developers will want to build in Forsyth County.

Looking at the whole picture, District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper addressed the issue of transportation.

“[Evans] mentioned how many people are spending an hour going to work and an hour going home from work,” Cooper said. “That much time on the highway – how much pollution is that? You have to balance it. Are we adding to the pollution by not … having the commercial development … adding to the pollution through the transportation? It’s never just one thing that you’re looking at; it always has a domino effect.”

District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent expressed concern with the removal of the tree surveys. While he did not believe that there needed to be a tree survey conducted before zoning, he wanted to make sure that there was a survey required after zoning.

“It’s the same thing like we don’t make [developers] do a full engineer plan before they have the zoning because they don’t know what their zoning is yet,” Levent said. “We do conceptual stuff until that point, but once you have your zoning, you know you have it and you know what your survey should be or your engineer plan is going to be around.”

District 2 Commissioner Alfred John expressed concern about the county’s tax digest, calling it “upside-down” because of all the residential development compared to commercial. John also said that going forward, he wanted to hear from the commercial side of things before “the last minute.”

“Going forward, if they come at the last minute and start throwing grenades into a process that we’ve worked hard towards, I’m going to be very unsympathetic to what they have to say,” John said.

Semanson agreed, saying that she wanted people to come early to contribute instead of when the process is almost finished.

As commissioners continued to address concerns of residents, Levent mentioned that he had previously looked at maps of the county from the 1950s and 1960s, back when the county was “mostly farmland.”

“We have a whole lot more trees today than we did in those days,” Levent said. “And I mean, it’s not even a comparison on the map if you were to look at those aerial shots.”

Levent said that when he compared the shots, most of the land in the ’50s and ’60s was dirt and farmland; that everything was “completely cleared.”

“Today, if you look at the same photos from those same areas, we are green, green, green with trees,” Levent said.

Mills said that she thought the revisions to the tree ordinance were “great” and “tougher than everywhere” surrounding the county. She said that since she has been on the board, the tree ordinance has been revised and improved three times.

“It’s gotten stronger every time,” Semanson added. “Not weaker every time.”

Semanson said she believed the ordinance “encourages the growth that we want and maybe discourages the growth that is not helping us get into a better economic position in this county.”

Commissioners also liked the idea of meeting again in a year for a stakeholder meeting to discuss the effects of the revised ordinances.

All negotiations regarding changes to the ordinances in residential districts were embedded in everything proposed on Thursday night.

After hearing from both residential and commercial sides, commissioners voted to approve both the tree and soil ordinances with all proposed revisions that have been presented previously.

Because commissioners approved the ordinances, the topic of UDC modifications will be brought back later this summer on Aug. 5. The tree and soil ordinances will not take effect until the UDC changes have been approved.