A new system that would require developers to pay a fee rather than physically replacing trees disrupted by construction was tentatively approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles City Council.
The in-lieu fee would allow the city to collect money to go toward future plantings rather than store physical trees in a nursery, where staff say they often die before being planted.
The ordinance was approved 13-1 on first reading, but will need to be voted on again in a week. Under city law, proposed ordinances require a second vote unless they are unanimously approved by at least 12 members.
The council rejected an amending motion — on a 6-8 vote — that would have required the City Council to approve a master urban forest management plan before creating the new fee.
“The idea is to have more trees get planted, allowing the banking of dollars rather than the physical banking of trees that are often dying, as a way to improve our urban canopy,” said Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who voted against the amendment.
Under city law, real estate developers are required to replace or replant trees that are on the site before development occurs. If the Board of Public Works or Department of City Planning determines that a tree cannot be feasibly planted onsite, a tree is purchased by the developer and delivered to the Bureau of Street Services Nursery, where the city says they often die before being replanted or adopted.
The fees would charge $2,612 per tree for a new development of four units or more, with one tree required to be planted for every four units built; $1,945 per tree for Public Works street tree replacements, with two new trees required to be planted for every one removed; and $267 per tree for residential properties of four units or less, with two street trees required to be planted for every one street tree removed.
Although Blumenfield insisted on a number of occasions during the City Council’s deliberations that the issue of the fee was essentially a narrow one, it sparked a larger debate about the city’s overall management of tree plantings. But he was ultimately able to convince a majority of the council not to “hold it hostage to the bigger issues of which we all agree on, what we need to do on these bigger issues.”
Councilman Paul Krekorian said he has been asking for years, through various motions, for the city to develop an urban forest management plan, to no avail. He also objected to the $267 cost of the residential fee under four units after being told by Board of Public Works Executive Officer Fernando Campos that the actual estimated cost of keeping a tree in a nursery for up to three years was $2,612.
“Subsiding residential properties to take out their trees, and giving them a discount to do it, to me is not a policy that is going to discourage tree removal,” Krekorian said.
Blumenfield said the city is currently studying the possibility of raising the fees.
Krekorian was joined by council members Mike Bonin, Gil Cedillo, Mitchell Englander, Nury Martinez and Monica Rodriguez in voting for the failed amendment that would have required the City Council to adopt an urban forest management plan before approving the new fee. Bonin said he believed the plan would take three years to develop, but would get done “a hell of a lot quicker” if the council held off on approving the in-lieu fee.
After the failure of the amending motion, Krekorian cast the lone vote against the new ordinance.
“As good of an idea as this in-lieu fee is, I’m struggling with the concept of putting money into a black hole when we don’t have any plan about what is going to be done with that money, at least no plan that’s been put before this council and the public for its consideration,” Krekorian said before the vote.
The council did approve, on a vote of 12-2, a second motion that would require City Council approval of Board of Public Works determinations of the locations for tree plantings using the in-lieu fees.
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