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Citizens Want to Protect Trees from Builders

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Little Rock, Arkansas is struggling with just how far to go in protecting two commodities that builders and citizens may not value quite the same way-trees and open space. A citizens' committee is proposing to set guidelines on the clearing of property for development, in an effort to preserve the natural character of lands around the city. Developers say the restrictions are going to be expensive, and that the costs will be passed on to homebuyers and consumers in higher prices for homes and products. But homeowners are concerned that the overall quality of life and attractiveness of the city will suffer without some controls. It's a debate raging across the country, as more and more jurisdictions consider open space preservation.

It usually takes a crisis or controversy to heighten the awareness of elected officials and prompt the citizenry to get involved. In the case of Little Rock, it all started long ago with the excavation of a major chunk of the Ouachita foothills to make way for a shopping center. The foothills are a scenic backdrop that is rapidly shrinking as development in West Little Rock moves forward. Citizens got riled recently when more than a million cubic yards of dirt was moved for another shopping center anchored by Target and Home Depot. Enough is enough, some said, and the City Board created a task force to review changes to the city regulations on landscaping, excavation and tree protection.

But developers are wondering out loud whether the public would be willing to pay the price of restrictions, if they knew the costs. The scariest outcome, according to builders, is that residential or commercial development could come to a halt, which would make shopping for a quart of milk or a new home somewhat problematic. Are you willing to sacrifice a few trees to avoid a half-hour drive into the city? In response to developer concerns, the Little Rock task force scaled back proposals to preserve large buffer zones of land along streets and side areas. It also dropped a proposal to require companies to do major landscaping of exiting parking lots.

Among the parts that survived are provisions that would require developers to hire a landscape architect for projects larger than 2 acres, to identify what trees exist and can be saved. In addition, all trees larger than 6 inches around would have to be preserved in certain buffer areas. The draft ordinance would fine violators $250 per day for each tree cut in violation of the developer's landscape plan. It would also place guidelines for the terracing and landscaping of land when a hillside is excavated.

Some open-space advocates point out that, on average, trees increase the value of lots by 5-7 percent, or as much as 20 percent, and that helps the developer's bottom line. And overdevelopment or congestion can hurt a region's quality of life and ability to attract new residents.

Sources used to create this article include Leslie Newell Peacock and the Arkansas Times.

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