When John Saylor moved from Wilmore to Lexington recently, he purchased his home based in part on two large and leafy selling points — towering mature trees in the backyard, one a bur oak 40 inches in diameter.
“It’s been raining leaves and we’re just giddy,” Saylor said.
Saylor, formerly Lexington’s senior urban forester who now administers the city’s urban forestry program, hopes that a new subcommittee of the Urban County Council will galvanize citizens and the government to pay more attention and spend more money planting trees.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay appointed the subcommittee in November. Members include council members, arborists, academics and forestry experts. The group’s informal charge will be to develop a plan to increase the number of trees planted and expand the city’s tree canopy. That committee — which has met informally — will have its first official meeting in mid-December.
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“We’ve been spinning our wheels for years and years,” said Saylor, a member of the subcommittee. “Just the fact that a committee has been appointed to look at the issue is huge.”
A 2012 report by Davey Resource Group showed that 25 percent of all land inside the city’s urban service area was covered by trees. That’s just shy of the national average of 27 percent. But it’s far less than national recommendations of 40 percent of all land coverage.
An updated tree canopy report was released in November. Lexington’s tree canopy provides approximately $50 million in economic benefits annually — from carbon capture to improving stormwater runoff to generating savings on homeowners’ air-conditioning bills.
Lexington was one of the first cities in the country to have a detailed analysis of the city’s tree canopy. The report — which has been updated in recent years — has been discussed at council meetings in past years, but no formal action was taken.
Councilman Jake Gibbs, a member of the city’s Tree Board and other tree-related committees, asked Kay to appoint the subcommittee after seeing the Davey Resource Group report and learning about Louisville’s recent public-private partnership to increase its tree canopy.
Gibbs said the committee would be exploring various funding options. It also will be exploring how much money will be needed to increase the city’s tree canopy.
Trees are part of our infrastructure. Unlike a lot of infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, you plant a tree and its value increases over time. It’s a very good investment for our community.
Councilman Jake Gibbs, chairman of new subcommittee on city tree canopy
The Davey report showed that the vast majority of land where trees are needed — 84 percent — is private. That means the subcommittee probably will need to develop a public education campaign aimed at private landowners and neighborhoods, and a funding mechanism to encourage tree planting, Saylor said.
“We want to be a leader and plant trees on public lands, but it has to be a joint effort with help from private citizens,” Saylor said.
The city has no specific line item in its budget for tree planting. But there are limited city funds that may be used for that purpose.
Angela Poe, a spokeswoman for the city’s Division of Environmental Services, said the the current city budget has $100,000 for neighborhood sustainability and ECO Art grants. Seven of the 21 grants over the past year have gone to neighborhoods to plant trees. The total amount for tree planting was slightly more than $24,000.
In addition, the city has roughly $20,000 it spends on other tree-related programs, and much of that is to help poor homeowners remove diseased trees.
Gibbs said one of the group’s first tasks is to learn what other cities are doing to fund and encourage more tree plantings. Charlotte, N.C.; Seattle; Philadelphia, and Louisville have launched efforts to increase their tree canopy in recent years.
“We will be looking at nonprofits, the University of Kentucky, corporations, just about anywhere and everywhere for money,” Gibbs said.
The subcommittee also might look at setting short- and long-term goals to increase the tree canopy. The city has had a short-term goal of increasing its tree canopy to 30 percent in five to 10 years and to 40 percent in the next 10 to 20 years. But the city has never set specific dates to reach those targets, Saylor said.
Gibbs said he hoped the subcommittee would have an update for the council in February. Gibbs said it’s unlikely the group will be able to ask for a specific allocation for trees in the upcoming city budget. Mayor Jim Gray typically unveils his budget proposal in late March or early April.
“We are not in a rush,” Gibbs said. “We want to make sure we do things right.”
Roughly 84 percent of the land where trees need to be planted in Fayette County is on private property.
Changing people’s perceptions about trees and their value also will be part of any program the group recommends, Gibbs said.
“Trees are part of our infrastructure,” he said. “Unlike a lot of infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, you plant a tree and its value increases over time. It’s a very good investment for our community.”
Dave Leonard of Dave Leonard Tree Experts and a member of the subcommittee, said the group’s creation was long overdue. The county is losing thousands of trees to disease each year.
Leonard said since the 2012 study was completed, the city has lost about 5 percent of its tree canopy to the emerald ash borer, an insect that kills ash trees.
“I would say about 5 percent have already been lost and another 5 percent will likely die soon,” Leonard said.
Although the emerald ash borer has grabbed all the headlines, other insects and diseases are killing pin oaks and other popular trees in Fayette County, Leonard said.
“We are going downhill really fast,” he said. “We have been talking about it, but talking is one thing. I am hoping that we can actually do something and get some programs going.
“We need trees to be a line-item in the city budget, and we don’t even have that right now. Look at Louisville: They started a tree-planting movement. We need something similar to happen here.”
Where the trees are in the city
Some of the city’s oldest and wealthiest neighborhoods have the highest percentage of shade, according to a 2012 study. Here are the rankings by council district:
Council District 1: 22%
Council District 2: 18%
Council District 3: 24%
Council District 4: 32%
Council District 5: 30%
Council District 6: 23%
Council District 7: 22%
Council District 8: 29%
Council District 9: 27%
Council District 10: 26%
Council District 11: 30%
Council District 12: 23%
Source: Davey Resource Group