The Sky above, the Trees Below: A Neighborhood Land-Use Scuffle Turns into a Satellite-Aided Fight for Forward Thinking in Urban/suburban Planning

By Davis, Norah Deakin | American Forests, November-December 1994 | Go to article overview

The Sky above, the Trees Below: A Neighborhood Land-Use Scuffle Turns into a Satellite-Aided Fight for Forward Thinking in Urban/suburban Planning


Davis, Norah Deakin, American Forests


WHAT WOULD YOU DO if you found out that your neighbor was about to clearcut his property and turn it into a wasteland of barren fill dirt? Gone would be stately pines, gone the rabbits and deer that make their home in your neighbor's woods and pastures, gone the bluebirds and painted buntings, the pileated woodpeckers and flickers.

This was the painful situation that faced the McKee family--Gwen and Tom and their three children (ages 13, 10, and 5)--on the Isle of Hope, a residential community on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. Tom is a pediatrician who spends all his free time outdoors. Gwen, a civic leader, has served as a trustee of the Georgia Conservancy, president of the Coastal Georgia Land Trust, and active member of the Savannah Tree Foundation. The McKee family did what most of us would do: They fought for the trees.

As a result of their battle, Savannah is now in the high-tech vanguard of urban forestry. Gwen McKee initiated a sequence of events that led to the use of computers and satellite imagery to prove conclusively that the city is undergoing significant tree loss. And that in turn resulted in the appointment of a task force that is working to beef up the city's tree ordinance.

It all started when their neighbor decided to carve nine acres into small residential lots and apply for a development permit. Previously, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had declared the nine acres to be wetlands, under the government's controversial 1989 definition, and thus the nine acres were ineligible for development into a subdivision. But backlash forced federal agencies to revert to an earlier, looser definition for the delineation of wetlands, and now only half an acre of the neighbor's property was declared off-limits to development. That sealed the fate of the trees and the deer and the bluebirds.

The neighbor's land was so low that houses could be constructed only after trucking in massive amounts of fill dirt. Since trees do not survive when their roots are smothered by fill, the neighbor planned to start by clearcutting.

The plan went public in late 1991 when he submitted a subdivision proposal to the local metropolitan planning commission. The McKees could not look to Savannah's tree ordinance for help, because it applies only to commercial property, not residential development. Even so, the planning commission ruled in the McKees' favor, rejecting the development plan because of the proposed housing density, the loss of trees, possible drainage problems, and traffic concerns.

The neighbor sued.

When the lawsuit went to trial, the judge ruled in the neighbor's favor. Clearcutting began in spring 1993.

"It was a traumatic month," recalls Gwen McKee. "Our whole house would shake every time a tree came down."

The Isle of Hope is a stable community where little or no development has occurred during the past 20 years. While the chainsaws were at work, neighbors called Gwen to ask if there was anything they could do. The Savannah Tree Foundation had spearheaded passage of the tree ordinance, and McKee found it frustrating to tell her neighbors the ordinance could not help. Not only does it not protect trees on residential property, the ordinance does not require developers to replant. That task is left up to homeowners once lots are sold.

The next step in the neighbor's plan was fill dirt. Truckload after truckload arrived, with dumping starting at the back of the property and working toward the front. As the McKees watched, they realized the root system for one of their large live oaks was partly on the neighbor's land. They called the county arborist, who came out and appraised the 60- to 80-year-old tree at $10,000 based on its species, location, condition, and size--33 inches in diameter. The tree is a favorite of the McKee children, who like to climb its massive branches.

The arborist agreed the tree was at risk from fill dirt and heavy machinery compacting the fill.

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