Published August 06, 2008, 12:00 AM

Mature trees get the ax

Residents stumped by developers’ removal of greenery
Joseph Krueger used to enjoy the sight of several dozen mature trees off Fargo’s 38th Avenue South, close to his home in the sapling-dotted Evelyn’s Acres development.

By: Kyle Potter, The Forum

Joseph Krueger used to enjoy the sight of several dozen mature trees off Fargo’s 38th Avenue South, close to his home in the sapling-dotted Evelyn’s Acres development.

But last week, the trees, which had once shielded a farm field, lay in a forlorn jumble of leaves and branches across the avenue north of the Osgood Hornbacher’s. They had given way to foundations for new construction by Fargo’s Pebble Creek Homes.

“You look around, and it looks the same for miles and miles,” said Krueger, a recent import from the Twin Cities, where Fargo has a reputation as uniformly flat and windswept. “Here, you have mature trees, and you rip them out. I don’t see why they couldn’t plan better and leave them in.”

City officials offer varying interpretations of why mature trees – a scarce commodity in south Fargo – succumb to development. Often, builders have legitimate reasons to sacrifice them. And when they are merely taking a shortcut, the city has limited leverage to intervene.

“Right now the laws are such that developers don’t have a lot of incentives,” says Planning Commissioner Catherine Wiley. “Their answer is always, ‘We couldn’t save the trees.’ I think they usually can.”

Krueger’s neighbor, Zana Hauer, for one, was unconvinced the trees had to go.

“It was very sudden and very shocking,” said Hauer as she watered a wispy honeysuckle sapling in her yard recently. “It takes so long for them to grow and then they just cut them down like that. It feels very naked right now.”

In an e-mail message, Don Dabbert Jr., owner of Pebble Creek Homes, said his company had no way of saving the trees because of issues with the plot’s elevation. The project will score new trees in keeping with Fargo landscaping requirements.

Fargo planner Mark Williams explains that when private property changes hands, the city has few opportunities to impose restrictions on tree chopping. The Planning Commission has some room to negotiate with developers as it prepares to sign off on zoning changes – but that doesn’t usually happen unless residents approach the commission with concerns.

According to city records, the shelter belt didn’t come up when the commission considered the Pebble Creek rezoning request in July.

City commissioner Mike Williams, a proponent of a greener Fargo, suggested the Planning Commission might take a more proactive approach: “When we’re looking at zoning changes, I think trees should be considered. I don’t think we can require builders to preserve a tree, but there seem to be ways we can encourage them.”

But Wiley said city commissioners need to arm her and fellow planning commissioners with a landscaping ordinance that has more bite.

According to Wiley, a landscape architect, Fargo developers often don’t explore all the ways they can work around trees. Some focus on cramming as many lots into an area as they can, Wiley said; other times, they cut down trees so they don’t get in the way of construction equipment.

“Our current ordinance doesn’t recognize the value of mature trees as very different from brand new saplings,” she said.

City Commissioner Brad Wimmer thinks developers are generally well-intentioned. He vouched for Dabbert, whom he called a model developer. But Wimmer acknowledged the commission should act on a more tree-friendly ordinance.

“We’re in this new green phase now; I think it’s horrendous what these new south Fargo areas have turned into,” he said. “Who wants to look at a concrete jungle?”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529