SWCD helping Charlotte, N.C. achieve tree canopy mission

The Mecklenburg Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is helping to shape policy for tree canopy conservation in North Carolina.

Earlier this year, the city of Charlotte created a Tree Canopy Action Plan Stakeholder team in response to public outcry to a tree ordinance amendment. Mecklenburg SWCD already works closely with the city’s Stormwater Committee, contributing to solutions toward impervious areas and groundwater issues, so City Planner Andrew Ausel approached the SWCD to be one of 20 stakeholders on the Tree Canopy Committee.

“We wanted a multidisciplinary approach, and we saw the conservation district as an important thought leader, as well as a voice that should be involved in any strategy we come up with to preserve trees in Charlotte,” Ausel said.

The city currently has a relatively healthy canopy for an urban area at 45 percent. Still, that has fallen from 49 percent in 2012. The city’s existing ordinance was written when Charlotte was still relatively suburban and focused primarily on preserving canopy on sites with lots of existing trees. As the city grew more urbanized, the tree canopy requirement became onerous, Ausel said. Last year, the city decided to update it.

Originally a small amendment to a larger ordinance, the tree requirements and conservation efforts that move forward out of the Tree Canopy Action Plan will be finely tuned by the project stakeholder team, which meets once a month. The Action Plan will include development policies and programs that will be included as part of the city’s new comprehensive plan.

How to preserve and increase urban trees is not a new concept to Mecklenburg SWCD. The conservation district began focusing on the issue in the 1960s, but today, in North Carolina, budgets continue to focus more on agriculture, and the district’s urban forestry budget is nearly nonexistent. Mecklenburg SWCD has annually received funding from the city and county.

When Ausel approached her about the Tree Canopy Stakeholder team, Mecklenburg SWCD Supervisor and National Conservation Foundation (NCF) Next Generation Leadership Institute (NGLI) Cohort Member Barbara Bleiweis jumped at the chance to collaborate and contribute.

“One of the biggest things confronting districts for the future is we’re always on the defense, and I’m tired of being on the defense,” Bleiweis said. “When they’re changing policies, we’re always getting called by neighbors to vote against it.

“This starts a long-term relationship with the city and other stakeholders around conservation,” she said.

The committee has concluded a handful of meetings, and though still at the beginning stages, Bleiweis said the opportunity is providing a way to form bonds with a crucial segment of conservation efforts: developers.

“At the end of the day, you have to deal with them, and they aren’t the bad guy…there are those who have a conservation orientation and try to pilot projects,” Bleiweis said. “That’s powerful, and they’re looking at our expertise.

“They may not see the connection between the forest, agriculture and urban agriculture, and we can educate them,” she said. “Conservation can co-exist – we know that – you just have to be blunt about it. Tell the developers what you want and use their talents in beneficial ways.”

In order to do tree canopy and urban agriculture projects, the SWCD received an NACD technical assistance grant this past summer. The funds are being used to develop tree stewardship and education programs, as well as a conservation program that connects trees to other aspects of conservation, including urban food forests and stream care.

“Everyone has been just great, the state has been great, and I continue to want to do more,” Bleiweis said.

She is also looking into how to create a conservation corps that can assist with bringing environmental economic value and education to low-income areas on a continuing basis.

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