Builders learn to be evergreen

Given the complications of saving trees on construction sites, it's tempting for home builders to call in the heavy equipment and level them. Although this has long been a common practice, the industry in the past few years has become more attuned to saving mature trees.

One reason is that homeowners like trees. Debbie Bassert, director of land development services for the National Association of Home Builders, says full-grown trees add to a home's value by giving it instant curb appeal.

"We know that home buyers are looking at not just what's inside the front door, but at the total package - the home, the lot, and the neighborhood - and trees can very much enhance the appeal of the community that way," she says.

In some cases, communities use regulations and ordinances to require developers to be better tree stewards.

Also, some developers are retaining the services of arborists to assist landscape architects and civil engineers in planning projects, as well as in caring for trees during and after construction.

To encourage such cooperation, the National Association of Home Builders and the National Arbor Day Foundation have become partners in sponsoring Building With Trees, a training and awards program.

Each year it recognizes outstanding examples of tree- sensitive construction.

Eagle Crossing, near Indianapolis, has been a recipient of the program's award of excellence for residential communities with 500 or more lots. C.P. Morgan Communities, the developer of the subdivision, saved thousands of trees from being bulldozed, including many in a 50-acre forest with walking and biking trails and wildlife viewing areas.

Work was also done to relocate large trees and to reforest about 10 acres along a creek that was wooded about 200 years ago.

The idea was to provide a better quality of life and enhance real estate values. More than 350 houses were sold in Eagle Crossing last year.

One of the keys to the success of this and other projects that aim to be tree-friendly was flexibility on the part of local planning officials.

In standard building codes, sewer pipes, roads, and other infrastructure take priority over natural elements such as trees. Trees, in some cases, can't be planted near underground pipes or public rights of way, lest their proximity possibly interfere with the infrastructure. Abiding by the code can actually lead to chopping down trees, which is exactly what the Eagle Crossing developers didn't want to do.

"You can restore the land afterwards," says Mark Boyce of C.P. Morgan, "but that is extraordinarily expensive. Why not work with natural systems and assets that exist on the property? That's much more cost-effective."

To retain the trees on the forested property, the developer clustered houses to leave as much open space as possible. Rather than building new drainage and sewer systems, the company also experimented with designs that complemented existing natural systems.

For construction crews, it takes time and effort to work around trees, but there is a payback. Developers can ask higher prices for houses on wooded lots.

When it comes to saving old trees, Ms. Bassert says hiring an expert is helpful in assessing trees' conditions and mapping out a plan for which ones to keep and how to care for them.

"With a little more supervision, builders have discovered they can save a lot of trees," she notes.

Doing so calls for establishing a construction-free zone around trees that will be kept. The rule of thumb is to keep activity one foot away for every inch of the tree's diameter.

So for a tree with a trunk about 12 inches in diameter, builders shouldn't encroach within 12 feet. That means no root-threatening digging, no soil-compacting stacking of building materials, and no soil-damaging activities such as changing motor oil or washing cement trucks.

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