Is the City of Phoenix Scuttling a Proposal to Protect Trees from Construction?

A construction crane at Phoenix Biomedical Campus development project.
A construction crane at Phoenix Biomedical Campus development project. Tony Webster / Flickr
Frustrated community advocates are accusing Phoenix officials of sidelining a proposal to protect trees on construction sites.

The dust-up follows years of broken promises by city officials to do more to increase the tree canopy in Phoenix, which proponents argue will help mitigate the sweltering heat. Activists say that the current disagreement over efforts to add more protections for trees into city code is just the latest instance of the government dropping the ball.

The spat stems from an effort by city planners to update a section of city code governing development and landscaping for residential multifamily properties. The new draft language, (also known as a text amendment), clarifies where trees should be located to provide maximum shade and under what circumstances they can be removed from a property. It's been in the works for years and is currently being shepherded to a final vote before the Phoenix City Council.

Some think that the amendment could go even further to protect trees in shade-sparse Phoenix. Specifically, they want city officials to adopt a proposal to codify "tree protection zones," which would require that developers fence off existing trees that are located on construction sites to protect their root systems from being damaged. The concept isn't novel; other jurisdictions, such as Portland, Oregon, have adopted similar requirements.

Nicole Rodriguez, a local certified arborist and community activist who has been advocating for tree protection zones, claimed that city staff members have so far refused to adopt the proposal, which she said has been kicking around for years.

"They ignored recommendations from the last three years," Rodriguez said. "If the city has heartburn about it, or they're not comfortable and it’s just too much for them this late in the game, we’re past that."

"The fact that we’re at this point and they still want to slow-ball this is a little bit disheartening," said Ryan Boyd, a spokesperson for the Urban Phoenix Project, an urbanist-minded group that supports the tree protection zones proposal. "We think the time is to act now."

It's no secret that Phoenix is getting hotter. Back in 2010, the City of Phoenix adopted a "tree and shade master plan" that set ambitious goals, like covering 25 percent of the city in tree canopy by 2030. However, activists have since argued that the city is not on track to meet its goals and that hundreds of trees are uprooted or die every year due to shoddy maintenance.

City staff said that the tree-protection-zones pitch is just bad timing. Joshua Bednarek, deputy director of the planning division within the city's planning and development department, said that while he supports the concept of tree protection zones, staff members are wary of getting sidetracked with the proposal, which they say necessitates seeking additional input and consensus on any changes. They believe it would delay the implementation of the city's overall code update.

"A big part of the concern is logistical. We had not had a chance to vet the new language," he said. "We’ve got some really solid language [already] that we felt like we’ve got universal support for and can implement."

"If we do not evaluate code, then we really run the risk of having conflicts within the ordinance as well as inconsistencies," said Tricia Gomes, zoning administrator with the planning and development department. "It’s important to move forward with language that is clear and doesn't conflict with other sections of code."

Bednarek claimed that the first time that city staff were notified of a specific request to add language concerning tree protection zones into the text amendment was back in April, when Rodriguez and other activists allegedly reached out with the proposed language.

The city got "great feedback" from neighborhood groups when they introduced the concept of the new draft language that will soon go before the city council. "At that point we didn't hear anybody pushing the tree protection zone," he said.

But Rodriguez said that Bednarek's claim was "bullshit."

"They've talked about stakeholders. We are the stakeholders," she said. "It’s not just the developers, it’s not just the utilities ... if they want to say that they’ve done their due diligence, that’s false and that's disingenuous to the whole process."

Six "Village Planning Committees," which are neighborhood boards appointed by the mayor and city council that weigh in on urban planning issues, formally support adding the tree protection zones concept into the text amendment, Rodriguez said.

Activists like Boyd and Rodriguez argue that it's worth delaying the implementation of the code changes if the tree protection zones proposal can be included.

"Staff wants to make sure that it gets passed," Boyd said. "We agree, it should be passed. However, we’ve also spent the last three years talking about tree protection zones."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety