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Arlington leaders poised to double fine for clearing trees. More preservation efforts may follow

The sun sets over the trail at River Legacy Park in Arlington.
Kailey Broussard
The sun sets over the trail at River Legacy Park in Arlington. Arlington City Council members will vote Dec. 5 whether to raise the city’s tree preservation and mitigation fee to $200.

Clearing trees without replacing them in Arlington is about to become more expensive for developers.

Arlington City Council will vote Tuesday whether to raise the city’s tree preservation and mitigation fee to $200 per caliper inch — the diameter measurement of a tree's trunk a certain height above the soil. The city currently charges developers $100 per caliper inch of trees removed and not replaced if they do not meet certain city tree preservation requirements.

Money collected from the fees go toward the city’s Tree Replacement Fund, which is used to buy and plant trees in public spaces.

The current fee lags behind several nearby cities: Fort Worth charges $300 per caliper inch; Irving charges $195; and Grand Prairie and Kennedale charge $200. Arlington’s fee change would bring the city on par with the average regional fee for the region.

The adjustment would also mark the first time the city has adjusted the fee since its introduction in 1994.

“Quite frankly, we’re probably a little bit behind schedule,” said Kevin Charles, a city principal planner.

The vote will be the first step in council's planned revisitation of ordinances meant to preserve Arlington's unique ecosystem. Arlington houses part of the Cross Timbers ecoregion, which is home to trees including the post oak, blackjack oak and Texas oak. The trees are slow-growing and sensitive to development, which means replacing them is more difficult than preserving them.

"When you lose a stand of post oaks, it's almost impossible to replace them with a stand of post oaks," Charles said. "It is very, very important that we protect what we have left."

Sheri Capehart learned about the forest while on city council. She led the effort to educate other council members about the importance of preservation during her last few months in office.

“We have the largest remaining span of that forest … and that’s an asset that most cities would be proud to have, and we have done precious little to protect it,” Capehart said.

Capehart and other city council members in 2020 approved changes to city development codes that give developers “extra credit” to preserve the oaks and extra penalties to clear them.

“You can’t go to Calloway’s and buy a blackjack oak … if they’re not allowed to stay and mature and drop their acorns, re-mature and continue to grow the first, reseed itself, well, shame on us,” Capehart said.

Capehart and other council members at the time tabled discussions about raising the fee. They explored raising the fee three years ago, but received pushback from developers worried about costs during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and costs for landowners with thickly wooded property.

Through the women’s political affairs group MPAC Arlington, Capehart and other organization members asked council and candidates during this spring’s election to revisit the fee.

The group sent a follow-up letter in the past couple months.

“We’re very appreciative of them acknowledging the need, that after 30 years, the fee was certainly behind the curve,” Capehart said.

City council members during an early November meeting said adjusting the fee will not be enough to improve tree preservation efforts. Council members agreed Nov. 7 to send the discussion to a council committee.

Charles said the city has had limited success with the changes made in 2020, mostly due to the scarcity of developable, vacant land in town.

“The sample size is so small now because we don’t have the property that we originally had. The city of Arlington is 99 square miles, and I would tell you that probably the city of Arlington is probably 95% built out at this time,” Charles said.

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Kailey Broussard is a reporter for KERA and The Texas Newsroom through Report for America (RFA). Broussard covers the city of Arlington, with a focus on local and county government accountability.