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Save the Heritage Trees — Not!

The City of Philadelphia modified its zoning codes to protect heritage trees back in December of 2011. It may not be enough to protect 48 heritage trees from being cut down to make way for artificial-turf playing fields in South Philadelphia's Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, FDR Park.



Before the pandemic, Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia's Parks and Recreation began work on a $250 million redevelopment plan for the park, which included an expansion of sports fields in and around an old golf course that closed in 2019. The plan was approved after multiple public hearings to receive input from area residents.


After the city locked down in 2020 during the pandemic, nature took over at the park. Vegetation softened the landscape and attracted wildlife. People began to take solace in what became a wild, natural refuge. Suddenly, the implementation of the redevelopment plan lost its appeal for many area residents, and a campaign to "Save the Meadows" was born.


Years prior, in 2008, Mayor Nutter's administration adopted a goal to grow the city's tree canopy to 30%, but a 2008-2018 city assessment found a 6% loss of canopy with 13% fewer trees in black and brown communities. Still, the city approved the clear-cutting of nearly 90 acres of mature trees on the Cobbs Creek Golf Course in early 2022 for redevelopment.


Furious over the loss of hundreds of mature trees, many Philadelphians demanded a different fate for FDR Park, and an active public campaign ensued to protect the wild spaces many had come to love. But in August 2022, 70 acres of trees and wildlife habitats were razed to the ground. That was phase I.


The next phase of the redevelopment called for clearing more ground for the artificial-turf playing fields and the removal of 64 trees, 48 of which are healthy, protected heritage trees, defined by the city as mature trees with historic and ecological value. One of the trees that activists are trying to protect is a state champion American Hornbeam.


The city code requires an exception from the zoning board to remove the trees. A February hearing was extended to a date in March to accommodate the large number of residents who wanted to be heard. On March 19, numerous speakers waited throughout the morning and afternoon to speak, the majority of whom wanted to plea for a modification to the development plan.


"I am probably the leading advocate for the FDR park's revival over the last 25 plus years," said Barbara Capozzi, longtime community leader and Co-President of the Friends of FDR Park. "I have volunteered 1000s of  hours, spent 1000s of dollars, and this case is ripping my heart out and stomping on it. I can summarize this plan in two words and save you all this reading: bad karma...of all the places on 360 acres to dump toxic turf fields. And that's another subject for another day. The experts picked in the midst of 64 huge, gorgeous heritage trees. Heritage trees means their role, their 25 inches in diameter or more, with multiple branches, and usually at least 30 feet high."


Capozzi went on to say that without the goodwill of the neighbors who frequently volunteer to clean the park, it becomes more attractive to vandals.


Several speakers said that they did not disagree with the need for city children to have access to sports fields but would prefer a modified plan to protect the trees.


"I would just like to say that this plan undermines the Philly Tree Plan, which states that the preservation of our existing canopy is a primary goal for the city," said Adam Woods of South Philadelphia. "It undermines the Philadelphia Tree Canopy Assessment, which found that between 2008 and 2018 Philadelphia lost 6% of its canopy. It undermines the Philadelphia Climate Action Playbook, which states that we need to use nature as a solution and that trees help remove carbon pollution while managing heat, clearing pollutants from the air, and managing stormwater runoff. It's as if one hand of the city doesn't know or consider important what the other is doing for the goals that it has set. The [playing] field crisis is real, but we should not be forced to choose between our fields and our natural resources. These fields need to be put in neighborhoods where kids can actually access them and where they do not require the demolition of our green spaces."


One week after the hearing, on March 27, the zoning board granted the exception allowing the trees to be cut. However, several days prior to this decision, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 local residents filed a lawsuit to demand an injunction saying that the plan required further approvals of the city's mayor and city council due to the extreme nature of the proposed changes to the park. The outcome at this time is unknown. 


Note:

If your local district is considering protecting high-value trees, it might be helpful to consider the Philadelphia experience and build something stronger. For example, take note of the language in the Philadelphia code, which outlines the many exceptions:

p.7

(e) Preservation of Heritage Trees.

The location, DBH, and species of all existing trees shall be included in a landscape and

tree plan. Heritage trees may not be removed from any property unless the applicant

meets the standards of § 14-705(1)(e)(.1) or obtains a special exception approval in

accordance with § 14-705(1)(e)(.2).

(.1) A heritage tree may be removed from a property without a special

exception approval, provided that the applicant replaces the removed heritage

tree in accordance with § 14-705(1)(f) (Tree Replacement Requirements); and

either:

(.a) The lot is at least 15 acres in total area and is located within an I-1

zoning district; or

(.b) One or both of the following applies to the heritage tree:

(i) a certified arborist has determined that the tree is dead,

damaged, diseased, or a threat to public health or safety; or

(ii) the Streets Department has determined that the tree

interferes with the provision of public services or constitutes a

hazard to traffic, bicyclists, or pedestrians.

(.2) If the standards of § 14-705(1)(e)(.1) are not met, a heritage tree may be

not be removed from any property unless the applicant obtains a special

exception approval. The Zoning Board shall grant a special exception to remove

a heritage tree if:

(.a) The applicant replaces the removed heritage tree in accordance

with § 14-705(1)(f) (Tree Replacement Requirements);

(.b) It determines that the criteria of § 14-303(7) (Special Exception

Approval) have been met; and

(.c) The applicant has demonstrated that the proposed development

cannot be practically redesigned to protect the heritage tree.

 


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