Timber will be on the chopping block in Plymouth Tuesday when the City Council is set to zone 28 wooded acres to build 46 new homes.

About 800 trees will be taken out by the proposed Willows development on Hwy. 47 in northwest Plymouth. The number includes 133 oaks, many of them more than 100 years old.

That's not sitting well with Steve Gardner, 50, a self-described whistleblower who goes through development plans filed at City Hall to add up tree loss and report his findings at council meetings.

Gardner says city officials talk about tree loss in total diameter inches, as dictated by the city tree ordinance, which doesn't convey the effect. To counter a city report that says the Willows would remove 65 percent of the combined tree inches on the site, he plans to show up to give the exact count. "I want people to know what is going on.''

By Gardner's tally, more than 2,000 trees will be taken down for the development. He includes trees that the city doesn't count: those smaller than 8 inches across, and trees lost to roads and utilities and drainage ponds.

"Can't we build the houses in amongst all these beautiful oak trees? Why do we have to cut everything down?" he said.

Plymouth's approach to tree protection is less aggressive than some of its neighboring communities and is considered overly simplistic by the Department of Natural Resources' community forester.

The city is seeking a balance between tree preservation, density requirements and the rights of land owners to develop as they wish, said Steve Juetten, community development director.

Pulte Homes, the Willows' developer, said it strives to preserve trees and worked with Plymouth officials to minimize the number that will be lost.

By Gardner's estimate, the city has lost about 50,000 big and small trees to about 30 big developments since 2000.

Gardner blames the loss on the city's tree ordinance, which lets developers cut down half of the combined tree "inches" on a residential lot and provides no more protection for a 120-year-old oak than an 8-inch-round ash.

Plymouth Mayor Kelli Slavik said, "It's difficult to balance the needs of preserving the trees with property rights and developers' interest in the community. If we could preserve more trees and still allow more development, that would be everybody's goal."

Tree ordinances differ by city

Ken Holman, the DNR's community forestry coordinator, recommends that cities preserve stands of trees rather than individual trees. He called Plymouth's 50-percent removal allowance too simplistic and said it warrants discussion about how the city can preserve valuable, long-growing trees in significant stands of woods, Holman said.

Along with the maximum clearing allowance, there should be other references to protect groves of healthy, longer-growing trees, he said,

Plymouth stands out from neighboring Minnetonka and Maple Grove, which take the DNR-recommended approach.

Minnetonka adopted a tree preservation ordinance to protect remnants of woodlands. "We are still preserving peoples' rights to subdivide,'' but they have to site the homes to fit in and around the protected trees, said community development director Julie Wischnack.

Developers can gain approval for greater density with designs that protect trees; otherwise they may build just one lot per acre, Wischnack said.

Maple Grove has set up so-called "T-zone" areas to protect prime forested land, reflecting a "very high'' community priority for trees, said Frank Kampel, staff representative to the Maple Grove arbor committee. The T-zones apply only to areas with important stands of trees, Kampel said.

If trees are cut beyond allowed amounts, "you need to replace them on a two-to-one basis. If it's a 100-year-old tree that is 40 inches in diameter, you have to replace it with 80 inches of trees," Kampel said. That cost "typically stops or hinders people from taking down trees'' but it has not deterred development, Kampel said.

In Plymouth the replacement is 1.25 for every inch of tree taken beyond the 50 percent allowance.

That policy is the product of what politics would allow when it was adopted in 1985 after residents complained about tree loss, said Plymouth city forester Paul Buck.

Although large, old trees are not specifically protected, " by counting caliper inches, you at least force them [developers] to look at the size of the tree.''

Plymouth has a lot of mature sugar maples and oaks, Buck said. "No matter how much it may pain me to see the trees go, as long as they are following the rules, that is all I can enforce."

Gardner wants the city to try harder to save the remaining old trees. "What I see is a beautiful forest with all kind of wildlife in it,'' he said, "and then I see it gone."

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711