When Oak Forest resident Nate Richards passed a crew cutting down a mature tree in his neighborhood near Wakefield Drive last week, his mind immediately sprang into action and sadness, as he sees the act representing a growing — and alarming— trend which puts Oak Forest in danger of losing its natural charm.
Richards and his wife immediately took to the area upon moving in eight years ago, believing it contained everything they could ever hope for; but said he and others fear the loss of trees represents more than just a fallen oak.
“A house big enough for a family with a yard and trees and still close to the city–there’s just not that many neighborhoods you can put all that together for less than $1 million in Houston,” he said. “The reason we fell in love with it was because it really is like driving in a mature suburban neighborhood.”
Since then, Richards said his street is flush with builders clearing entire lots of massive trees to make room for suburban style landscaping.
“I love the redevelopment of Oak Forest, but I’m so saddened to see new homes coming to the neighborhood and tearing down our neighborhood’s gorgeous mature trees,” he wrote on NextDoor.
Oak Forest Homeowners Association President Martha Mears echoed the sentiment, but said that unfortunately due to deed restrictions as currently written, the HOA’s hands are somewhat tied.
“We hate to see all those wonderful, gorgeous trees come down, but the builder and that homeowner have to make decisions on how to get that house planned on that lot,” she said. “Then they have to adhere to the setback lines and building lines that are in the deed restrictions.”
Part of the issue lies in what Mears said those drawing up the deed restrictions more than 40 years ago could not have envisioned — the massive population boom which has enveloped the city; and as such did not account for what is currently taking place with regards to any sort of HOA authority.
“There aren’t any provisions in there which address that,” she said. “Because of that, they have to remove some of the trees; it’s unfortunate because we are seeing a lot of them come down all around the neighborhood.”
Mears mentioned that the crux of the problem with amending deed restrictions lies within the diversity and expansiveness of Oak Forest, which spans more than 5,500 homes in 18 distinct sections — each with its own personal set of deed restrictions.
“You need to have 75 percent of the residents agree to the new changes in the restrictions,” she said. “You would also be looking at something which generally takes about a year to 18 months to get done, and who knows? That’s part of what we would be dealing with.”
“It’s not anything that any of us want to do, I think it just comes with the territory with these trees,” she added of taking down the beloved oaks, noting that the homeowner’s association does revisit the issue each year to examine the financial feasibility undertaking the amendment process.
What can be done to help?
On the city level, Jeremy Burkes with the city of Houston’s Urban Forestry Department noted the department would not be opposed to amending the ordinance as written — which unfortunately for homeowners such as Richards currently makes no provisions for protection of trees on private property.
However, he said such a proposition has not been made during his 11 years of working with the city, and is one which carries the potential for huge ramifications.
“It’s something we would love to see happen, but we’d have to coordinate that with our planning department; and then you’d get a lot of pushback from developers,” he said.
Currently, Burkes said Urban Forestry’s reach only extends as far as being able to require builders to re-plant or preserve a certain number of trees on a city right of way – two trees if lot size is greater than 5,000 square feet, and one tree for any property less than 5,000 square feet.
“If there’s not room on the right of way, then we allow them to plant them on private property and those trees have to remain alive for two years,” he added. “After that if a new property owner wants to remove it, that’s where we have no jurisdiction.”
Change not out of the question
That said, The Leader decided to look into other similar spots around the area, and it turns out cities such as Bellaire appear to have implemented measures which require builders to work around certain oaks — a development which could work in residents’ favor.
The city of Bellaire tree ordinance essentially states developers preparing to build on private property must submit a proposal to the city stating which trees they will take down, which will be preserved and those to be added over the course of building.
Additionally, a certain minimum number of trees must remain on the property following construction depending on the width of the property.
Upon learning as such, Burkes said the notion of extending tree protection onto private property is one which merits at least a consideration.
“I would say there’s always a possibility,” he said of the notion that such a shift could occur in Houston. “I think it’s worth the city at least looking at it, seeing how other cities have implemented the procedures and how developers are operating within those confines. The ordinance is in place, but it can be amended.”
Any addendum, he warned, would still be a lengthy process.
“It’s something that is going to take a lot of support and justification. I don’t see any of us being against protecting trees, but a lot of the pushback will come from developers,” he said. “I think there must be a happy medium so we can all work together.”