Greenville isn’t as green as it used to be.
With the city’s tree canopy diminishing, Greenville is considering a tougher tree ordinance that would require developers to replace every tree that they take down while also protecting the old heritage trees that once flourished in established neighborhoods like North Main and Parkins Mill.
Based on aerial flyovers by the U.S. Forest Service, Greenville lost approximately 33.1 million square feet of tree canopy between 2001 and 2011. By 2021, the loss could grow to 59.6 million square feet, and 75% of the city could be covered in asphalt, said Edward Kinney, senior landscape architect for the city of Greenville.
“Those are pretty dramatic declines that we’re seeing in our tree canopy,” Kinney said during a public input session on July 22.
The loss of resources has prompted City Council members to ask for changes to Greenville’s tree ordinance, Kinney said.
Exactly what the revised ordinance will look like is still being decided, but city officials say they want the ordinance to simplify the process of how trees are replaced and where new ones should go. They also want it to be more effective.
“It’s got to preserve more trees,” Kinney said.
While big developments like Verdae and Clemson University’s ICAR campus have contributed to the canopy loss, Kinney said they’re not the only culprits.
“Even … some of our really traditional neighborhoods like the North Main neighborhood that we think of as green and historic and beautiful really [are] seeing significant canopy loss,” he said. “It’s happening slowly so we don’t notice it, but it is happening.”
So what exactly is behind the loss?
A key player is Greenville’s current tree replacement policy, which only requires developers to plant one tree per 3,000 square feet.
In contrast, Atlanta, Georgia, requires a 1:1 replacement, which means “if you cut down one 20-inch tree, you must replace it with a 20-inch tree,” Kinney said.
If you can’t replace the trees, Atlanta’s ordinance requires that you plant them elsewhere in the city or pay a fee in lieu. The fee, which can run $500 to $1,000 per tree, goes into the city’s tree fund, which is used to plant new trees and also to hire arborists to care for them.
“We’re not necessarily trying to replicate what Atlanta has … but it is effective,” Kinney said.
As it is now, Greenville is saving 14% of its trees on any one site.
“And we’re only saving only about 12% of those really big heritage trees — the nice, big, healthy, beautiful ones that really define a community,” Kinney said.
The new ordinance is currently in the drafting stage. It must be approved by the Greenville Planning Commission before it goes to City Council for a full vote.