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STUMPED: Can land excavation and tree preservation be a win-win for CoMo?

Which has more value:  new saplings or old growth woods?    Final part of a 5-part series
 
by Matthew Schacht, special to the Columbia Heart Beat


COLUMBIA, Mo 11/11/13 (Feature) -- In the lobby of Columbia's city hall, Jay Gebhardt listens patiently to residents displeased with a new development his firm, A Civil Group, is engineering near West Broadway.  Russell Starr, Gebhardt's client, wants to cut down a small grove of trees for a commercial building.

The homeowners stand mute.  Gebhardt explains that some trees will be removed, and the landowner has the right to cut them down. The only question is which trees.

When the residents finally speak,
stolid expressions give way to a litany of complaints about living near commercial enterprise.   

One woman says she can hear drive-through orders for Andy's Custard from inside her $200,000 home.  Philip Wulff says that runoff from the nearby Hyvee and WalMart parking lots floods the creek near his home, filling his yard with water and trash. Wulff worries that trees cleared for Starr's building will make matters worse. 

Gebhardt explains that
stormwater retention ponds his client will build can decrease flooding.   But he tempers his optimism with honesty, telling Wulff and his neighbors that erosion in the nearby creek will probably still occur. 

"I frequently take people through a learning curve on development, regulations and the city's process," Gebhardt says after the residents leave.  His clients are careful to consider the impact of their projects, he adds.   "I can tell you, a lot of developers think twice about making enemies of their neighbors."

In few places has the impact of a development been more keenly felt than with Aspen Heights, a homey student apartment community of gabled roofs and white picket fences in south Columbia.

Built over the former Regency Trailer Park, a mobile home community with more trees than trailers, Aspen Heights' arrival was greeted with protests over the displacement of Regency's low-income tenants.  Petitions, activists, and concerned City Council members held the project up for months.

Complaints about vast swaths of clear-cut trees (see graphic here) followed during construction, prompting the Columbia City Council to review the tree ordinance, a move Aspen Heights' civil engineer Tim Crockett sees as unnecessary.  "It's done nice things," Crockett says. "The ordinance has done its job."

New trees planted as part of a "landscaping plan" are among measures the ordinance recommends for compliance with tree preservation standards. Aspen Heights has planted dozens of young saplings to replace old growth trees removed during construction. "In 10 or 20 years, you'll have more trees," says Crockett, a well-known name in local building and construction. "We're going to re-vegetate [the property] and the trees will grow back."

But forester Josh Behounek disagrees.  Columbia's tree preservation ordinance is "really weak," he says. The city gets a raw deal from developers like Aspen Heights, who trade large, mature trees for spindly saplings.
 
Man-made infrastructure "depreciates with age, but trees are the opposite," Behounek explains.  Unlike houses, cars, and shopping malls, which are at their most valuable when they are new, trees appreciate in value the older they get.  "They get bigger, they provide more function to us, and give us more," Behounek says.

All sides considered, Columbia's tree preservation dilemma may boil down to which side wins a values competition: future vs. past; conservation vs. construction; tree preservation vs. land excavation.

As the series' graphics have shown, Columbia's metropolitan area has lost about half its trees since 1976. But most of those trees have been replanted, according to aerial photos, ground surveys, and other data. A transition from old forests to new woods is underway.

As new saplings grow and blossom, maybe both sides win. But then again, such an outcome may be wishful thinking, leaving the dilemma unresolved.
 
"Development is like everything you do in life," reminds Jay Gebhardt. "It's not always win-win."
 

Gebhardt photo and Aspen Heights tree graphic by Matt Schacht.  Wulff photo by Kile Brewer.  Behounek photo by Josh Behounek.   Matt Schacht is a University of Missouri journalism and law student.      

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