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Kansas City just passed an ordinance to make developers protect trees — or pay up

Two people walk their dogs on a sidewalk that winds along a line of trees in a park. To the left is a large apartment complex.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Trees line the sidewalk along the Berkely Riverfront Park. The city's ordinance aims to protect trees like this one from being cut down by developers.

The ordinance aims to prevent unnecessary tree removal by requiring developers to maintain existing trees or pay a fine. But some tree experts say the fine doesn’t cover the cost to replace a tree.

Developers have to maintain existing trees, pay a fine or plant new trees on-site under an ordinance approved by Kansas City Council on Thursday.

The fee of $185 per caliper inch — a measurement of a tree trunk's diameter — is a compromise after developers objected to the measure. But as supporters of the ordinance pointed out, that is not enough to replace a tree.

Steven Van Rhein, the environmental manager for Kansas City Parks and Recreation, said each tree costs the department about $285 per caliper inch to replace.

“(The price) is based off our existing contracts that were competitively bid,” Van Rhein said. “That's what it costs the forestry department to put a tree in the ground through our contractors.”

The ordinance includes exemptions from fines in special cases, including emergency tree removal and pruning or removal by public utilities.

Kevin Lapointe, a city forester, said the ordinance isn’t enough incentive for developers to protect trees.

“If we're going to preserve trees in a forested area, obviously it has to be in such a way that development considers those forested areas seriously before they start moving trees,” Lapointe said. “Not where, ‘well, we're gonna remove 'em anyway, but we're just gonna have to pay something now.’”

The City’s Climate Protection and Resiliency Plan passed in August 2022 includes a goal to increase the city’s tree canopy to 35%, up from its current 31%. That goal is also part of the city’s 2020 Urban Forest Master Plan.

City Councilmember Andrea Bough said the ordinance will help the city reach those goals.

“By regulating the preservation, protection, planting maintenance, and removal of trees, this legislation supports the environmental benefits of stormwater management, air quality, carbon sequestration and more,” Bough said.

One study predicted that Kansas City could reach heat index temperatures of up to 125 degrees in the next 30 years. The trees help to capture greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere.

Trees also help cool temperatures and address the Urban Heat Island effect, where urban areas can be as much as 7 degrees hotter than surrounding areas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Urban trees have also been linked to overall population health improvements in diseases such as asthma, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

The city forester will review the tree replacement cost annually. The legislation also directs City Manager Brian Platt to review the ordinance and its impact with the city council’s Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee next year.

Corrected: March 17, 2023 at 12:27 PM CDT
This story has been updated to clarify the costs for removing and replacing a tree. Both fees are per caliper inch — a measurement of a tree trunk's diameter.
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