If a Tree Is Felled in Phoenix, Will the City Council React?

A citizen-led effort is trying to push the city of Phoenix to make good on an 8-year-old plan to use more trees for shade.
A citizen-led effort is trying to push the city of Phoenix to make good on an 8-year-old plan to use more trees for shade.

It all began in November 2017, when two companies chopped down eight trees in Renaissance Square in downtown Phoenix. Public outcry followed, and six months later, vocal locals had spurred the city to pull together a formal group that is supposed to help transform Phoenix into a shadier, more tree-filled city.

Now, one of the problems is how — or if — the city will enforce the tree-friendlier vision it professes to support. If a tree is felled in Phoenix, against city-approved plans or other codes, will the city consider that a violation?

“I think it’s very unlikely that the city could say, ‘You can’t remove a tree,’” said Sarah Porter, a lawyer and a co-chair of that group, the eight-member Urban Heat Island/Tree and Shade Subcommittee, which met Thursday at City Hall. Nearly 30 people, including members of the public, packed into a small conference room on the 14th floor.

Other members echoed those concerns, wondering how the city would hold property owners accountable. “We don’t know what tools are in the city’s toolbox for redress,” said Dwayne Allen, the other co-chair, a restaurateur who owns The Breadfruit and Rum Bar. He said there had been cases when the city had approved a landscaping plan, only for trees to subsequently be removed.

Since 2010, Phoenix has had a Tree and Shade Master Plan, which it describes as "striv[ing] to create a healthier, more livable and prosperous Phoenix through the strategic investment in care and maintenance of the urban forest and engineered shade."

That master plan called for 25 percent of Phoenix to be under tree canopy by the year 2030. “Last we heard, it’s somewhere around 12 percent,” Allen told Phoenix New Times. In some neighborhoods, it's far less, in the vicinity of 6 percent.

Critics have previously accused the city of doing little to nothing in the past eight years to make that plan a reality.

In other words, the mere existence of a group to take on this question could be considered progress. But that progress remains slow. The eight-member subcommittee, formed in May, meets once a month for an hour and a half. By next March, it is supposed to submit to the City Council, via the Environmental Quality and Sustainability Commission, all of its recommendations for (finally) moving forward with the city's master plan.

Currently, the city counts 92,865 trees on its property. Phoenix is an urban heat island, whose buildings and roads absorb heat during the day and release it at night. According to city literature, plant-heavy areas can be up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than non-green areas, and so, as temperatures rise due to climate change, trees would help mitigate the urban heat island effect and reduce heat-related illnesses and deaths. In 2017, a record 155 people died from heat-related illnesses in Maricopa County.

By the end of Thursday's meeting, members had worked through a portion of their agenda, saving the next topic of discussion — the exciting topic of "soil volume" — for October's meeting.

"I think they're going well," Porter said, when asked how the meetings were progressing. Certain issues, like how far the city should go in requiring property owners to keep trees, "are political issues that we really don't have control over," she said, adding that bringing more trees and more shade to Phoenix is a complicated, expensive endeavor.

"We need to take the time to make sure we're having the discussion that each of these issues deserves," she said.

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