BL1416 Passes Becomes Law: Tree Density Increases in Nashville +60%

Nashville Passes Tree Law: BL2018-1416

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BL2018-1416 Becomes Law

Nashville will see a 60% increase with tree density for commercial and multifamily properties, heritage tree classification and retention incentives, and a higher quality of landscape design with the passage of this bill. Bill becomes effective September 1, 2019.

The final passage of BL1416 – Nashville Metro Council’s so-called “Tree Density Increase Bill” – occurred today (July 16, 2019) during Third Reading. Lead sponsor of the bill was council member Angie Henderson with the following co-sponsors: Colby Sledge, Anthony Davis, Freddie O’Connel, Brett Withers, Burkley Allen, Mary Carolyn Roberts, Mina Johnson, Kathleen Murphy, and Jeff Syracuse.

The life of BL1416 began about nine months ago. And if it weren’t for the vigilance of the tree-advocate community it most likely would have languished and died in that timeframe. The passage of BL1416 most definitely was a lesson in persistent, loud civic involvement, and procedure for how bills become laws.

First, BL1416 was introduced to the Metro Council in November of 2018. Because it involves the fate of how land will be developed in developed in Davidson County, as set out in Chapter 17 of the Metro Charter, it had to also undergo the scrutiny of the Metro Nashville Planning Commission after this initial reading. This original bill targeted multi-family and commercial properties, increasing the tree-density unit number per property from 14 to 20. It also removed the building-footprint exemption from that equation, which meant that developers would have to spend more money on trees – a controversial sticking point for some builders. This lead to the bill’s languishing. It was almost indefinitely deferred by the planning commission (In essence, killed) in January 2019 but then was sent to Metro Nashville Planning Department Staff for a series of stakeholder meetings as a concession for keeping the bill’s intent alive.

There were three groups of stakeholders at these open-forum meetings: landscape architects, tree advocates, and the commercial and multi-family builder community. Each group had its own meeting, then met all together in a fourth. These meetings continued over the next few months into May 2019 with great involvement on the part of the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps, who provided compelling data that had not been introduced: we showed that we had the lowest tree density for any city our size in the South, and we showed that the tree bill had a negligible impact on building costs. Later, this research was expanded to look at peer cities across the country; we could find no other city of our size, sharing our climate, that had lower tree density standards than Nashville, TN.

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As all bills do in a democracy, this one began to mutate and evolve, usually for reasons of compromise. The building footprint exemption was put back into the bill. (A big negative); the TDU increased to 22 (a positive); the “heritage tree” concept was introduced into the bill (big positive: builders now had incentives to retain mature heritage trees during development but did not face any mandatory mitigation if they chopped down those heritage trees.) The bill also allowed street trees (those in the public right-of-way alongside the street) to count toward TDU.

In the week before the final planning-commission vote, citizens (urged by the NTCC) flooded commissioners with an unprecedented 274 emails in favor of the bill with not a single person in opposition. An employee in the planning office reacted on Twitter one morning when she came in and saw her mailbox flooded with letters.

Commission approved the substitute bill and forwarded it to Metro Council for Second Reading on July 2nd, 2019.

All bills considered by Metro Council must undergo three readings. The second reading before Metro Council must also include a public hearing, where anyone can speak for or against the proposed legislation. The bill was one of many items on a very long list of topics for Metro Council to hear that day, including some contentious issues around short-term rentals, and scooters. BL1416 was the second item on the list and therefore had a large public audience at the beginning of the public hearing. There were roughly 50 people who raised their hand to show support for the bill (there were folks stuck outside the room waiting due to fire code safety concerns when asked to raise their hands), and representatives from the following organizations showed to speak for the bill’s and tree’s larger importance in general: Nashville Tree Conservation Corps, the Nashville Tree Foundation, the Cumberland River Compact (Root Nashville), the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Metro Tree Advisory Committee. Not a single person spoke out against the bill, and it passed unanimously with amendments that closed some major and minor loopholes. The most important tweak dictated that small-canopy trees like redbuds, dogwoods, service berries, columnar varieties, etc. would be worth fewer credits than large-canopy trees like oaks, maples, and tulip poplars, etc.

In Nashville’s form of government, a bill becomes a law after the second reading; the third reading is mainly procedural. On July 2, 2019, Nashville’s first tree bill in more than a decade passed unanimously in second reading – and passed Third Reading on July 16. It will officially take effect September 1, 2019.

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DETAILS OF BL2018-1416

  1. The number of tree density units (TDUs) required per acre would be increased from 14 to 22 (instead of 20), but only for multi-family and non-residential developments. The TDU requirement for 1- and 2-family residential would be maintained at 14. (Section 17.24.100.B);

  2. The exclusion of land covered by buildings from gross acreage calculations would be retained in the Code, with no requirement that the buildings meet sustainable design protocols. (Sec. 17.24.100.B.3.a);

  3. The exclusion from gross acreage calculations of semi- and tractor-trailer service areas, drive aisles, and parking/loading areas would be eliminated, as originally proposed. (Sec. 17.24.100.B.3.d);

  4. The provision reducing tree density requirements by half for narrow, rectangular shaped residential lots (i.e., lots with widths <25% of the average depth) would be retained rather than eliminated. (Sec. 17.24.100.B.2.b(iii));

  5. Landscape plans submitted with applications for final site plan approval would be required to bear the seal of a professional landscape architect, but only for developments with 5,000 sq. ft. or more of permanent structures. (Section 17.24.020.A);

  6. Trees with a diameter of 24 inches or more, or which qualify as "heritage" trees, would be required to be survey located and depicted on final site plans, as originally proposed. (Sec. 17.24.090)

  7. The definition of "retained tree" would exclude those species listed on the Tennessee Invasive Exotic Plant List, and would include only healthy trees in fair or better condition;

  8. The current replacement tree schedule would be bifurcated to provide separate schedules for (a) canopy trees and (b) understory and columnar trees; and

  9. Single-trunk replacement trees must meet certain dimensions and consist of species listed in the Urban Forestry Recommended and Prohibited Tree and Shrub List.

After BL2018-1416’s Passage (from left to right): Jennifer Smith, Eleanor Willis, Pat Wallace (front), Carol Hudler (middle), Jim Gregory (back), Carol Ashworth (hiding in the middle), Noni Nielsen (front), Anthony Viglietti (back), Laura Martin (middle), Ad Hudler (back), Alder Garcia (front), Will Worral (back), and CM Angie Henderson.

After BL2018-1416’s Passage (from left to right): Jennifer Smith, Eleanor Willis, Pat Wallace (front), Carol Hudler (middle), Jim Gregory (back), Carol Ashworth (hiding in the middle), Noni Nielsen (front), Anthony Viglietti (back), Laura Martin (middle), Ad Hudler (back), Alder Garcia (front), Will Worral (back), and CM Angie Henderson.