A college town faces an important dilemma   Part 1

By Matthew Schacht, Special to the Columbia Heart Beat

COLUMBIA, Mo 11/6/13 (Feature) -- Steel-toothed excavators grind and grade parcel 17-701-00-31-008.0001.  The 9.5-acre property along Grindstone Parkway is bordered by a farm, a church, and a roaring four-lane highway. 

Without trees and other vegetation holding the Earth together, soil now tops a silt fence along the parcel’s northern boundary. Rain speeds the erosion, slopping sediment into an unnamed tributary of Hinkson Creek.

After construction is complete, apartments on the parcel will house several hundred students within sight of a Wal-Mart Super Center. On such a prime location, the apartments are valued by the City of Columbia at over $23 million dollars.

But the land itself is assessed by Boone County at less than $300,000, making it cheap to keep for development opportunities like this one.

The new student apartments are another instance of high-impact development in once-quiet neighborhoods, where city government widens sleepy two-lane roads to relieve traffic congestion building for years, and developers drop acres of old-growth trees.

As the city grows, saving trees has become a priority.

Since 1976, the city estimate
s Columbia has lost about half of its pre-1976 woods.

“We need new solutions for managing our green infrastructure,” says Columbia GIS analyst John Fleck. “Our storm water system doesn't end with our pipes and streets.”

The city has put a dollar amount on tree loss in one or two reports.  But ecological benefits provided by trees -- clean air, clean water, erosion control -- are not routinely quantified when a developer asks permission to topple them.

The real estate market undervalues trees, former Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman says. Though he
generally avoids talking politics since leaving office in 2010, Hindman is concerned about the future of Columbia's forests, which has become a political issue.

"If someone wants to build a subdivision and knock down all the trees...the developer hasn't lost," Hindman explains.
  The real costs of tree removal -- erosion, less wildlife, and air quality loss -- are "absorbed in remote ways" by the rest of the community, he says.

During Hindman’s tenure as Mayor, Columbia grew by 28 percent -- more than 24,000 residents.  Although a slackened economy since 2008 had put the brakes on rapid growth, development is once again steaming ahead.  Real tests of the city's commitment to tree preservation are an inevitable consequence of the building surge.

"As financial opportunities improve," Hindman says, "that's when you can tell how things are really going."

Columbia city manager Mike Matthes says he's observed a construction surge in just the last several months. 

"Development is fired up in a big way," Matthes says.  "It's a big change from two years ago."

City-issued building permits for residential construction in 2013 are up 60 percent over 2011.  More permits mean more money in development projects.

In 2012, the city valued all construction at $33 million.  In 2013 so far, developers have built $77 million worth of residences alone.

Columbia appears to be entering another building boom, Matthes says, sipping coffee in the lobby of City Hall.  "The developers are back."

In response to the boom, city officials began reviewing Columbia’s tree preservation ordinance last fall.

They’re concerned legal loopholes are allowing developers to cut down more trees than necessary. 

Any action to close the loopholes, however, may conflict with city government's own growth planning. Columbia needs more residential development to keep pace with population growth, city planners explained in a recent report.

But more residential development invariably means more lost trees.

Photo and graphics credits:  Matthew Schacht, Kile Brewer, Libby Burns
Matt Schacht is a University of Missouri journalism and law student.      

Next:  A battle brews