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City to Organization: Downtown Covington Trees Can't Be Brought Down

The Point/Arc of Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati is constructing a brand new building on Washington Street directly to the north of its longtime home on Pike Street.

As part of its expansion, three trees on Washington Street should come down, executive director Judy Gerding said.

But Covington's urban forestry board and city arborist said, no.

And then, in a 3-2 vote, the city commission overturned the board, with Mayor Joe Meyer casting the tie-breaking vote. His son, Chris Meyer, is an architect from Hub + Weber, and is working on the Point project.

But because the trees are located in an historic preservation overlay zone, another city board had to offer its consideration, too.

The urban design review board, like the urban forestry board, said, no.

On Monday, the city commission, in a 3-1 vote, upheld the UDRB's decision, which was only evaluated on whether it was capricious or arbitrary.

Mayor Meyer is out of town and was not present on Monday. Commissioners Michelle Williams, Tim Downing, and Shannon Smith voted to uphold the UDRB decision while Commissioner Denny Bowman voted against the motion.

Bowman, Williams, and Meyer previously voted in favor of overturning the urban forestry board decision.

“There was not financial benefit to me or any member of my family. We were voting on a proposed legal settlement involving The Point as prepared by our
city attorney," Mayor Meyer said in a statement to The River City News when asked in June about his vote and whether there was a conflict of interest. "I didn’t see an application related to a project – only a proposed settlement related to a potential fine governing trees.”

The Point has thirty days to decide whether it will appeal the city commission's decision to Kenton Circuit Court.

"I think they are the most unsightly thing you can pass," Gerding said. "The most the city has ever done is mulch them maybe once or twice in our forty years. We have been mulching the area, planted shrubs in the area, planted flowers in the area. The roots are so high above the ground, people that walk there can trip. And whose liability is that?"

Chris Meyer, the architect, argued to the UDRB and again on Monday to the city commission, that the trees are not historic, having only been planted there in the mid-1970s, and not meeting the minimum 50-year threshold for historic designation.

They are not, he said, heritage trees.

Assistant city solicitor Cassandra Zoda said that whether the trees are historic is irrelevant, and that heritage trees are defined as being over two stories, which the three trees in question are.

"It is based on the size of the trees rather than the historic nature of the trees," Zoda said. "I think it's clear from the record that (the UDRB) followed all the procedures. The guidelines are very clear."

"By itself, it's not clear," Chris Meyer said. "Does that mean as tall as the second story or exceeds the whole thing?" He argued that a tree could be purchased today and grow as tall the ones currently on Washington Street within four years. "You can have a four-year old tree that is now counted as a heritage tree. I do not believe that is what is intended to be included in a heritage tree. A four-year old tree from Home Depot almost by definition cannot be a heritage tree."

Gerding and the Point did not simply want to take the trees down because they find them unsightly. They have impeded construction progress, she said, with workers having limited access to the site. Additionally, if the trees were to remain, plans for water infrastructure below the ground to service the new building would have to be rerouted, costing the nonprofit organization another $6,500.

Gerding said the Point would plant new trees in their place, ones that would match the trees planted recently near the Duveneck Square apartment project. 

"It's not like we're not replacing these trees with much more attractive looking trees," Gerding said. "This new building will be the most attractive building in Covington, and for us to have these trees, it just doesn't make common sense anymore."

The Point, which provides services to individuals with intellectual and development disabilities, sees its new $2.5 million, three-story Zembrodt Education Center as an opportunity to provide the space needed to continue to offer employment services, pre-vocational skills, and career exploration classes to individuals. It will also allow the organization's social communication program and education services to grow, the Point said in a news release last year.


SIDEBAR:

When gathering facts about this story as it developed earlier in the summer, the City of Covington, in a statement to The River City News, explained that the city's treatment of trees through ordinances, boards, and commissions is not uniform, clear, or consistent.

Trees face regulations from zoning, historic preservation, and urban forestry. 

Additionally, the urban forestry board's authority is an advisory board with the power to make recommendations, but the city said how that recommendation is to be treated is unclear.

An ordinance establishing the urban forestry board fifteen years ago required that it write Covington Urban Forestry Best Management Practices and a Comprehensive Urban Forest Plan, and have those adopted by the city commission.

The best practices and plan were never written or adopted.

Therefor, the appeals process on urban forestry decisions is unclear, the city said.

The city commission has said it would like the legal department at City Hall to work in the coming year to solve these issues and bring clarity to tree regulations.


"We had hoped these trees would have been down," Gerding said. "We're locked in as far as building the place. It's taken us six months longer trying to schedule construction people in and out because there's no space to put anything.

"I'm sorry. They're ugly. It's disgusting. It's nothing but a dumping ground for dogs."

But despite Gerding's contention that the trees are either dead or dying, the trees are very much alive and provide an important service, said Crystal Courtney, who at the time of the original urban forestry board decision against the Point, was the City of Covington's arborist. She has since left that post for a job with the City of Cincinnati, but was recently appointed by the mayor and city commission to serve on the urban forestry board.

"I did the original assessment. The trees were very healthy. Overall, there is no reason to remove the trees," Courtney said. She said the UDRB "stuck to their guns" in holding up the standards. "The trees are mitigating a boatload of stormwater."

Additionally, Courtney said, the trees provide help to the urban core's "heat island". The central business district of Covington has one of the least dense canopies in the city, she said. 

"To cut down large, mature, healthy trees in our central business district is a disservice to our community," Courtney said.

Cassandra Homan, who was hired as Courtney's replacement at the City of Covington last month, also spoke in favor of the trees. She argued that healthy trees are attractive to visitors and encourage them to spend more time in the city and to spend more money. 

"Beyond that, I think it's important that under our current definition, these trees do fit the heritage trees definition and they are providing considerable benefits to our community," Homan said.

Dan Bell, chief operating officer at the Point, disagreed. He said that the new businesses and mix of old and new architecture are what draws crowds downtown. "It's not the trees," he said. "The only people who come down to see the trees are the dogs and the homeless people who come here."

Bell argued that a new wall sculpture that will be placed in the lobby of the Zembrodt building will be a draw to people, though.

It was unclear whether the Point plans to appeal to the circuit court. 

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher