How well the city’s tree preservation laws are working is being put to the test by a hotel on Interstate 430, where buffer trees in front of the business’ electronic sign were mysteriously poisoned and girdled with chain saws.
In August 2005, Storm Nolan, owner of the Value Place residential hotel on Interstate 430 and Remington Road, lost a bid before the Planning Commission to build a 100-foot-tall freestanding sign that could be seen from the interstate. Without that, he said, the trees the planned development had preserved between the hotel and I-430 would block their sign, originally approved to be 25 feet tall, and harm their business.
The Planning Commission denied the request, citing the fact that I-430 is a scenic corridor, something the developers should have known.
Today, the hotel’s sign — an electronic board placed high on the northwest side of the building — is no longer competing with trees. Acting on a complaint this summer, an arborist for the city went to the site and counted 176 dead or dying trees in the hotel’s buffer between it and the interstate. Of those trees, 17 had been girdled with a chain saw. His suspicion that the trees had been poisoned was confirmed by the state Plant Board, which found the poison tebuthiuron in soil and vegetation samples.
Nolan says he has no idea how the trees came to be poisoned and cut. Maybe it happened during construction in 2005, he said, and the trees are just now showing the strain. He says not to worry; he’s working on a plan with the city to replant.
But Christie Marvel, a landscape architect who handles complaints over violations of the landscape and buffer ordinances for the city planning department, said the soil on the site is too contaminated to plant in. She is recommending to the City Beautiful Commission that Value Place be required to dispose of the soil and vegetation in compliance with federal EPA regulations, replant a number of trees equal to those that were killed and irrigate the area to maintain the buffer.
The recommendations would be costly. The dead and dying trees are on a steep slope. But the case, Marvel said, is egregious.
Now Marvel is watching to see how tough the City Beautiful Commission will get on Value Place, because she believes it will set a precedent. “I would certainly hate to see more of this,” she said. She added that it would take many years for the wooded slope to return to its original condition.
Value Place has hired a landscape architect and is working on its own mitigation proposal. If it’s turned in before the commission’s meeting on the first Thursday in November, it could be placed on the docket for the commission’s Dec. 7 meeting. Appeals of City Beautiful Commission actions go to the city Board of Directors.
Once the plan is approved, the city’s Environmental Court will decide what fines, if any, to impose on Value Place. The city code allows a fine of up to $500 and a $250-a-day penalty for each day no action is taken to remedy the violation.
In May, Value Place was called before the city’s Environmental Court for a violation of the sign ordinance. Its electronic sign was showing moving images; that has been corrected. Judge David Stewart required the hotel to pay $25 in court costs, but imposed no fine.
Value Place pleaded guilty to not maintaining the tree buffer Sept. 5 in Environmental Court. Another hearing Oct. 12 has been set to monitor progress on the remediation plan.
Arborist Pete Rausch, who is in the city Parks and Recreation department, said the loss of trees at Value Place does not compare to the huge land clearing at Shackelford Crossing, where a mall will be built. He’s surprised there has not been a greater outcry from the public over city laws that allow such clearing.
The city’s land alteration ordinance was proclaimed toothless by its supporters in 2003 when a developer of the Kenwood subdivision along David O. Dodd Road, cleared 89 acres — knocking down 4,300 trees — without even a construction permit. The developer was “slapped on the wrist and given a small fine,” Rausch said.
The violation did put money in Rausch’s T.R.E.E. fund, allowing him to plant 150 trees along David O. Dodd and in that neighborhood. (The fund was created to allow developers to make cash payments when replanting would be a hardship.)
Marvel said the City Beautiful Commission could request any number of remediation actions.
It could allow Value Place — which originally got tree credits for promising not to cut the trees in its buffer — to replant the slope without soil removal. But if the trees die again, the hotel will be required to replant again, and to show proof of why they think the replanting will work.
The commission could require Value Place to donate to the city’s T.R.E.E. fund, but “I would think in addition they would have to plant trees back,” Marvel said.
The herbicide has migrated down the slope to land owned by the state Highway Department along the interstate, department spokesman Randy Ort confirmed Monday. He did not know what kind of action the department might take.
Developers will continue to consider the fines for tree-cutting as simply part of the cost of doing business until the fines are increased — and imposed, Marvel said. But she said the city’s landscape ordinances “certainly” have had a positive impact on preserving trees. She said Little Rock is substantially better off than communities around it with no such ordinances.