Like so many things, it often takes a cataclysmic event to bring change.
Let’s hope that change is now in the works as Fort Worth council members and the city staff look at ways to strengthen the urban forestry ordinance and hold developers accountable when they violate building permits.
Area residents registered outrage. Star-Telegram reporter Sandy Baker reported the travesty and the city’s decision not to fine the developer, but to instead require the company to plant five times the number of trees erroneously removed.
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This Editorial Board said, that’s not enough. The City needs a policy that will prevent these development blunders before they happen, whether they’re mistakes or intentional. It appears some developers are willing to cut corners and risk getting caught because the potential penalties are light. It’s just the cost of doing business and that needs to change.
The D.R. Horton incident isn't the only tree cutting violation the City of Fort Worth has discovered, and because staff rely on complaints to catch violators there may be many we don't know about.
City records show at least six violations since October 2017, including a recent incident where the developer began grading a new residential site without ever getting a permit.
The Editorial Board has called on elected officials to do the following:
— Find money to hire additional staff for monitoring development. It might come from steeper fines for violations or increased fees for inspections. Right now there are only two urban forestry professionals and too few site inspectors to monitor ongoing development.
— Shut down projects immediately when there’s an infraction, whether it’s for tree cutting or other development violations.
— Offer incentives for developers who do things correctly.
The D.R. Horton site is located in Council Member Gyna Bivens’ District 5. During Tuesday's council briefing Bivens asked for many of the improvements we've recommended.
She also told Director of Planning and Development Randle Harwood she wants to make sure developers capture a visual tree inventory of a project site before work begins and she wants development applications to be available online so residents can see what's about to be built in their neighborhoods.
Harwood told council members he anticipates having more development data online by June, and - in what could be a helpful improvement — he plans to cross-train employees who do gas drilling inspections to assist the urban foresters in monitoring for compliance with the tree-cutting policy.
We're encouraged Fort Worth officials are taking all of this seriously, though the outcome of this discussion should produce more than window dressing to placate citizens who want to preserve natural spaces. It should be a real plan with carrots for the builders who behave responsibly and meaningful penalties for those who don’t. And it shouldn't stop with preserving our valuable tree canopy.
Don't lose sight of the forest — the big picture — for the trees.
Beefing up the tree ordinance is a great start, but the council and staff need to go beyond excessive tree-clearing and close other loopholes that allow developers to work without permits and cut corners at building sites.