Oxford learns to protect the canopy

By Errol Castens / NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – Oxford without its canopy of trees might as well be Biloxi without the beach.
“When people think of Oxford, they think of those tree-lined streets in those old neighborhoods,” said Cowan Hunter, co-chair of the city’s Tree Board. “They’re part of the character.”
The five-member Tree Board’s work includes educating both the general public and professionals in development and construction about the lifestyle and economic benefits of preserving trees – an issue made more urgent by the rapid growth in construction that had gripped Oxford before the economy cooled.
“A lot of times developers think they have to go in and clear-cut before they can develop,” Hunter said. “People generally are more aware of the need for sustainability … but developers are harder to get to the table.”
The Tree Board also advises city officials on ways to enhance public landscapes, such as a just-finished tree-planting project at Lamar Park and the gradual enhancement of major city gateways.
The board recently negotiated a compromise with shopping center owners who asked to plant fewer but larger trees than Oxford’s landscape ordinance requires after their grandfather clause expires.
“It’s not a bad precedent to set,” said co-chair Hume Bryant.
Board member Mary Hartwell Howorth said the results would eventually justify the cost of the improvements.
“I think they will see what a wonderful improvement it will be. Their customers will notice it,” she said.
Board members hope also to influence tree preservation on the 75-acre wooded site of the proposed new Oxford High School.
The Tree Board has no enforcement authority, but its members notify city officials of problems they notice. Just as important is their role as liaisons between municipal doings and the citizenry.
After City Engineer Bart Robinson explained about trees that would be lost to new bike lanes in parts of the city, Hunter said, “We kind of like to know about stuff like that beforehand, because we get asked why they’re cutting. It helps a lot when I can tell people, ‘This is what they’re doing, and this is why they’re doing it.”
The board’s influence is aimed past Oxford’s city limits, too: The Master Tree Plan laments that Lafayette County has no zoning, often resulting in actions that “ignore the aesthetic quality of the community and even the concerns of one’s neighbors.”
Tree Board members use the Master Tree Plan, the Tree Ordinance and the Landscape Ordinance as their guiding principles. Governing policies include protecting existing woodlands and groves, preserving riparian habitat, encouraging the planting of native species and protecting mature trees – especially historic or specimen trees.
City-owned trees, whether on rights-of-way along streets, in parks or outside municipal buildings, get the strictest protection. Any work on them or within their drip line requires a tree permit.
On private property, Oxford’s landscape ordinance aims at preserving the shade canopy by requiring developers on projects of a certain size to either retain existing trees (other than in the footprint of buildings) or to plant several young trees to replace each mature one removed. Where replanting is not feasible, developers must contribute to an escrow account for the planting and maintenance of trees on city-owned land.
ReLeaf Oxford is another outreach the Tree Board oversees. The program provides one or two young trees per homeowner in developments that were clear-cut before construction, aiming to whet an appetite to add more themselves.
A few years ago, such developments were reducing Oxford’s tree canopy by more than 100 acres per year. Tree Board members are concerned the pace of deforestation will pick up again when flush times return.
“The preference still seems to be to clear-cut,” Hunter said. “We’ve been trying to get information out to people in development and construction. In the long run, they need to realize it has a positive impact on their bottom line.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.