New shade tree ordinance taking root

Altoona looking to improve the state of its ‘urban forest’

Reached by phone in the middle of a hot afternoon, Bill Elmendorf paused under trees along Allen Street in State College, where he works as a professor of community forestry at Penn State and talked about helping the Altoona Shade Tree Commission update the city’s shade tree ordinance.

“It’s cooler, shady,” Elmendorf said about his surroundings. “People are sitting outside on patios eating lunch” — in the shade.

The proposed ordinance is designed to help Altoona improve its “urban forest,” so there would be more opportunity for residents and visitors here to find themselves in the same kind of surroundings.

The urban forest is “a necessary part of city infrastructure” important for “health, safety and welfare,” with many environmental, social and economic benefits, according to the “purpose” section of the proposed ordinance, which is still a long way from being presented to City Council for introduction and adoption.

Elmendorf translated that abstract language.

If you spend an hour in a city with no public trees on a day like Thursday, it would be “blazing hot, and all you want to do is get inside,” Elmendorf said.

If you then spent that hour in a city with a lush urban forest, you’d be cooler, more relaxed — “you would see and feel the difference,” he said.

The ordinance puts it in more technical language: increased carbon storage and biodiversity, mitigation of air pollution, modification of temperatures and help with stormwater control, improved health and quality of life, increased property values, a business boost and decreased energy use.

While the enjoyment that Elmendorf expressed might be hard to quantify, there have been studies that have measured the effect of urban forests on property values, including one conducted by the Wharton School of Business, which found that trees increase property values by 6 percent, Elmendorf said.

That applied even if one only had a view of a neighbor’s trees, he said.

Another study showed that hospital patients with a view of greenery from their windows were discharged more quickly and asked for fewer pain medications, he said.

The state of California is currently trying to quantify the relationship between street trees and human health, and the preliminary findings indicate the relationship is dramatic, he said.

Under the current Altoona ordinance, the city has mainly dealt with the removal of trees in protected corridors, efforts that have tended to be more of a “hindrance” than a help, according to Altoona Com­munity Development Di­rector Lee Slusser, whose office staffs the Shade Tree Commission.

“We’re falling behind,” Slusser said.

The proposed ordinance would create a “more comprehensive program,” he said.

It would allow the city to take a greater role in tree maintenance and in protecting trees from threats, in­cluding threats from construction activities, Slusser said.

It would also lead to more public engagement and public education and would up­date standards for arborists — while doing away with the licensing of arborists by the city, Slusser said.

One of its main tools will be requiring permits for removal, significant pruning and planting of trees in the public right-of-way and for construction work that affects such trees.

Violations could lead to fines of $400 to $1,000, plus a requirement to repair or replace trees damaged or removed.

The proposed ordinance would require payment of a tree’s value as estimated by a certified arborist when that tree is removed to accommodate a construction project, unless it can be transplanted.

One apartment house construction project that re­quired the removal of six trees led to a $33,000 payment in State College, Elmendorf told the commission.

The new ordinance is not intended to establish “the new tree police,” however, Elmendorf said.

“No one will be driving around looking for violations,” he said.

The State College tree com­mission has filed only two citations during Elmendorf’s 25 years as a member, and both were “warranted,” be­cause the violators had “just cut down trees,” he said.

The ordinance revision project includes the understanding that the commission should create a tree plan.

“It’s not all about regulation,” Elmendorf said. “It’s simply a way to professionalize and ensure efficient and effective management of an important asset.”

Good examples of a healthy urban forest in State College are the Highlands and the College Heights neighborhoods, Elmendorf said.

In Altoona, the neighborhoods around Mansion Park are nicely forested, with lots of big, older trees, Slusser said.

Hileman Heights has nice trees in its medians, including some younger ones recently planted, he said.

Sixth and Seventh ave­nues and Logan Boulevard, by contrast, have trees in need of trimming, he said.

Seventh and Eighth streets have trees that grew too big for their settings, he said. They’re “in the process of slowly being removed,” he said.

Dutch Hill, despite being walkable with “spectacular” views of downtown, is nevertheless too bare, Slusser said. “There’s an awful lot of concrete and not too many trees,” he said.

The next step for Slusser is to take the proposed ordinance to city departments whose work would intersect with the ordinance, including the Department of Codes & Inspections and the De­partment of Public Works, for comment.

Then a draft ordinance would come back to the commission for revisions, before finally going to City Council, Slusser said.

“It’s a big ordinance, with a lot of impact,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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