After more than one dozen emails and the public showing up in opposition, Conway City Council Monday deferred the decision to vote whether or not a Wild Wing neighborhood developer could be exempt from following the city’s tree preservation rules.
In September, the city’s planning department sent 129 letters to landowners within 200 feet of five parcels — three owned by Canolina Properties and two owned by JP Jordan and Associates — in Wild Wing Plantation off U.S. 501. Neighbors were notified of the public hearing and first reading scheduled for Monday.
The item is a request to amend to the city’s tree ordinance to release a portion of the Wild Wing Planned Development district from having to comply with the ordinance. If passed, the property owner could, in theory, cut down trees protected by the city's ordinance regardless of size, if the property owner decided to do so. The owner would still have to implement landscaping buffers around the project, said Allison Hardin, the city’s planning and development director.
The parcels make up about 50 acres, which is mostly identified as medium-density residential in the city’s comprehensive plan. A portion of one parcel is identified as recreational.
Jimmy Jordan with Canolina Properties and JP Jordan and Associates said plans for one seven-acre parcel include senior living apartments.
In one email to the city, Wild Wing resident Amanda Soderstrom said the property abuts hers on two sides. Soderstorm said she purchased her property mainly because of the trees.
“I did not want to live somewhere where there was no wildlife, shade or privacy,” her email reads. “Exempting these lots will ultimately decimate the existing wildlife in the area, cause more traffic to the area which is already a problem, and lower property values.
“This will also set a precedent for other properties to do the same. What is the point of an ordinance to preserve trees if one can be exempt from it?”
Property owners also expressed concerns about the loss of buffers if trees were cut and the negative impacts to the entrance of the development.
In addition to more stress on traffic and residential overbuilding, Wild Wing resident Min Ye shared concerns about impacts to the “fragile ecosystem” in the area and habitats shrinking.
“I have witnessed the change in the Carolina Forest area,” Ye said in an email. “Forests were destroyed and animals were forced to go around residential areas for a living. Some of the areas are swamps. They offer habitats for wildlife and serve as a reservoir for stormwater. With global weather changes, we have more extreme weather in this area. I am afraid that the new development will cause more flooding issues for both existing and future residents.”
The seven-acre parcel includes maple trees, cypress trees, water oak trees and laurel oak trees, according to the property’s tree survey.
Nearby business Blue Max Trucking notified the city it had “no true issue” with the amendment to the ordinance, but added the business runs a loud operation almost 24/7.
“What we want to get ahead of — and would want to get something in writing indicating the same — is a potential scenario where this Amendment is approved and then years down the road we catch flack for being too loud or otherwise a ‘bad neighbor’ causing disruption to the business requesting the Amendment,” read an email sent to the city from Chris Bauer, CFO and general council with Blue Max Trucking. “Simply put, we are fine with the request as long as it does not prevent us from continuing to do what we have been doing there for the last decade-plus.”
About the property
In 2019, Jordan requested to include the institutional zoning classification and that the parcels be exempt from the city’s tree ordinance, according to public records from the planning department.
At the time, the city’s planning commission recommended approval to city council to include the institutional zoning classifications, but deferred the request for exemption from the tree ordinance until a tree study was conducted. After the tree survey and mitigation assumptions, the city and the developer could not come to an agreement on the proper fee for cutting down protected trees.
Hardin said staff looked for ways to reduce the fee, but it was never to the applicant’s satisfaction. "Staff only has so many ways to work within the law; after that, it’s up to a review board to decide," Hardin said in an email Tuesday. "The city has a tree review board, and the applicant has not yet taken that route. That’s one of our points – the tree board has flexibility that staff doesn’t, including the ability to reduce the fees further. The applicant has not yet taken this opportunity, which is like skipping a step in the process."
Since the city received the request, staff has studied the issue of tree cover, mitigation, and fees, and have developed amendments to the tree ordinance based on city council’s requests, public records state. "This revisit of an exemption for Mr. Jordan’s properties is one of those requests,” city documents state.
“That’s been in the works for two years,” Jordan said Tuesday. “I asked for a release two years ago and they are finally getting to the issue. Why it took so long, that’s up to them.”
According to planning documents, city staff “has not been able to identify a reason why this property should be considered differently than all others in the city.” Staff recommends that any planning for a future site take the “landmark trees into consideration.”
Planning commission previously denied recommendation of the request. The matter has been discussed multiple times by council during city workshops, but council has never taken a vote on it.
Jordan said it has slowed down his plans to develop the property.
“And it’s blocking development for the city of Conway,” he added.
City’s tree ordinance
Conway is known for its large, old trees — and, in fact, has been recognized as a “tree city” for decades. It's no secret the city invests in tree preservation: City roads have been built around its historic trees and the city employees an arborist.
The purpose of the tree ordinance is to provide protection, preservation, proper maintenance and use of trees and woodlands, according to the ordinance. Among many intentions, it’s also in place to encourage beautification, minimize disturbance and prevent damage, and to address public concern for “these valued natural resources” for city residents.
A number of different types of trees — larger than a certain diameter at breast height depending on the type — are protected in the city, including crape myrtle, live oaks, sycamore, red maples, bald cypress and flowering dogwoods.
These trees may not be removed from any city property without a protected tree removal permit. If removed without a proper permit, the ordinance states a person either has to replant the same number of inches or pay the equivalent of buying those trees from a nursery, which goes into a tree fund for planting more trees and tree protection activities.
After council’s unanimous vote Monday to defer the request, Wild Wing residents had questions for city council, including why the item was deferred.
“There’s a lot of information that needs to be unpacked there,” said councilman William Goldfinch, who made the motion to defer the item. “I don’t think we realized that it was coming back on this agenda and we need more time to study it and more time to hear from the folks in the community … We would be making a quick decision and I’m not comfortable with doing that…”
The request will have to go back through the advertising process in order to let the public know about a future public hearing date ahead of any formal council votes.
Kathy Ropp contributed to this report.