Chesterton Tribune

Porter County approves new tree and homeowner protection rules

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Porter County will soon get new regulations on two planning matters, one aimed at preserving native trees on large parcels and the other aimed at protecting homeowners who move into new conservancy districts.

Both measures received unanimous first-reading approval this week by the Porter County Commissioners and will be brought back for final adoption, tentatively on June 16.

The new “tree preservation standards” call for new developments in the unincorporated areas -- residential or commercial -- to prepare a tree preservation plan. Any trees removed as part of the construction must be replaced or offset by a deposit in a new county tree fund.

The new standards are limited, however.

Porter County Plan Commission Executive Director Robert Thompson said counties cannot regulate the extraction of natural resources, such as trees or minerals, on private property in defined rural areas.

Under Indiana code, that includes properties outside of municipalities in areas where there are fewer than eight houses within a quarter square mile.

The new standards also do not apply to single-family residential units in platted subdivisions or those that are five acres or less. Nor do the new rules apply to small trees, defined as those with a diameter breast height (DBH) of less than five inches, or trees that are non-native or prone to disease.

The new standards also don’t apply to subdivisions that are heavily forested, since they might already be required by the county’s open space ordinance to preserve at least 25 percent of the natural area. Further, the new rules don’t apply to county drainage board projects or to tree nurseries.

Other properties, though, are covered. These theoretically would be new residential or commercial developments, as well as individual houses on more than five acres, in areas where there are already nearby houses.

Speaking from the audience, Porter County Council member Sylvia Graham asked if the new standards would prevent property owners like herself who need to remove trees due to disease or threats to structures. Thompson said the county cannot regulate trees in those cases.

In the cases where the new standards would apply, the developer or property owner would be required to submit a tree preservation plan with their development plan or subdivision application. The plan would include a tree survey and an inventory of the native tree species. The plan would also identify the number of trees to be removed and what’s to be planted after the site is developed.

Trees damaged during construction must be replaced or, if the site cannot handle all the replacement trees, payments are to be made to the new tree fund. The replacement schedule calls for a 1:1 replacement of trees up to 16 inches DBH and up to a 4-to-1 replacement for trees at least 30 inches DBH.

Those who opt to pay into the tree fund instead of planting trees would pay $200 per tree.

The tree fund will be used for new tree plantings primarily in public spaces. Developers who plant replacement trees could be eligible for up to $100 annually in reimbursement from the tree fund.

The standards include a long list of deciduous, coniferous, and ornamental trees that are native and deemed worthy of protection and replacement. They include sugar maple, honey locust, tulip, bur oak, and hemlock.

The standards also list non-native, invasive or disease-prone species that can be removed at the discretion of the owner. These include black locust, cottonwood, silver maple, and willow.

In cases in which the trees have been harvested commercially and then the owner seeks to develop the property within five years, the replacement plan outlined in the new standards would apply.

The new tree standards have been under discussion since last year and were modeled in part by the city of Valparaiso’s tree ordinance.

Conservancy Districts

At a recent Porter County Plan Commission meeting, residents of the Timberland subdivision in Liberty Township said they were not aware when they bought their homes that they were moving into a conservancy district that had the power to impose a tax on their property tax bills.

That lack of awareness is at the root of new disclosure rules approved this week by the commissioners.

The new rules call on conservancy districts to disclose bonding and budgeting information and confirm that the utility will have the capacity to serve the homeowners in proposed new subdivisions. New homeowners are to be made aware that their conservancy district has the power to tax and are to be kept informed about conservancy district board meetings.

County Commissioner President Robert Harper said he believes the disclosure rules are the first of their kind in Indiana.

Harper cited the complaints that the plan commission has received from unaware homeowners moving into conservancy districts. “I don’t want to see that happen again,” he said.

North Porter County Commissioner John Evans noted that there are a number of truth in lending rules when people buy homes, and said that there needs to be assurances at the time of a closing that the homeowners understand that they are buying in a conservancy district.

A question was raised as to whether the proposed ordinance adequately protects homeowners moving into established subdivisions, not just proposed subdivisions. The commissioners agreed to review if changes are needed before final adoption.



Posted 6/5/2009