By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – The issue of adding photovoltaic carport installations often runs into conflict with the desire to at the same time preserve existing trees and tree cover. Last week the Davis Planning Commission held a public hearing on a photovoltaic carport project associated with Phase II of the Sutter Hospital project and approved the project on a 6-1 vote.
The project calls for improvements to the Sutter Davis campus, originally approved back in 2019, which includes the addition of more medical and birthing rooms but also green energy initiatives (parking lot photovoltaics).
According to city staff, the first phase was approved by staff as part of an administrative approval process and Sutter is said to be fully mitigating for the Phase I tree removal with a number of onsite tree plantings.
However, during the second phase, there are a number of issues that have arisen. For one thing, the Tree Ordinance update was underway which includes a key discussion on addressing the conflict between existing parking lot trees and photovoltaic carport installations.
Based on this, staff elevated the approvals for Phase II to the Planning Commission to allow for broader outreach and discussion.
These plans have generated controversy among some in the community. Alan Hirsch in public comments last week complained that the Phase 1, which was administratively approved, did not give adequate public notice to the removal of 142 trees. While these trees have not been cut yet, he points out that this phase would cut over 60 more trees.
He argued last week, “You cannot waive the 50 percent parking tree shade (requirement) in the current ordinance.”
Alan Hirsch in a phone interview with the Vanguard on Tuesday, noted that this was not only an issue about trees but about city process.
“This is not about the trees,” he said. “This is about city process.”
He added, “I find it absurd farcical that basically that if I wanted a tree removed from my front yard, protect the tree, I would have to go through a city council, a public hearing for the city, for the tree commission, but Sutter hospital can remove for 205 trees and Sherri Metzker (City Planner) can say the tree commission has nothing to add or input on the process.”
He charged, “This was a conscious decision by the staff not to inform the tree commission or the public.”
Hirsch said he believes that this should be a council decision, not the city staff, and “I find this makes me distrust the entire city process.”
From a policy standpoint, Alan Hirsch told the Vanguard he believes this proposal can be improved considerably.
“I think they can save more of the trees,” he said. “I think some of the solar panels should have been put on the roof. Staff never inquired about that.”
According to Hirsch, Sutter Hospital believes that would be unfeasible.
“That means it costs too much money,” he said. “It’s about money. It’s not about energy, because if it was about energy they would put it on the roof regardless of the cost. We want to save money, we want to do it as cheaply as possible.”
He also believes that Sutter could reduce the conflict between trees and solar panels dramatically. He noted that one of the mitigations is to take the trees and plant in them in a new grove in the back of the hospital.
“Where that grove is,” he argues, “They could solar panels.”
He acknowledged that is a tiny area compared to the parking lot, but argued “they could put solar panels back there and leave some of the trees around the buildings in the front of the buildings, but they’re not considering that.”
At last week’s commission meeting, Chair Cheryl Essex while thankful for the project, noted that she was worried about the precedent of removing 200 trees for solar panels.
She noted like Alan Hirsch there were places that solar panels could be placed on the property “that would have a lot less impact in those locations than by removing mature trees.”
The Planning Commission did approve the project, but a commissioner proposed a condition of approval to require Sutter Hospital to transplant 43 mature parking lot trees.
Concerns were expressed that transplanting is complex and costly.
Ultimately the Planning Commission voted to approve the project with the condition that 43 mature trees be transplanted attached to it.
Cheryl Essex noted, “There are a lot of benefits that trees can provide that solar panels cannot provide, especially the improvement to human health.”
She added, “Removing over 200 trees which is the proposal, is a really poor substitute aesthetically.”
In a separate comment to the Vanguard, Essex said “removing mature trees makes the effects of climate change worse in both the short and long term. I strongly support solar energy but these won’t provide the shade that mature trees will.”
Should the Tree Commission have been involved in the process? Clearly it seems, when you talk about a tree removal process of 200 trees, it would seem logical to include the Tree Commission in the decision making. Particularly, as one person pointed out, Bretton Woods also removed over 250 trees, so nearly 500 trees will have been removed in a small area in the last year.
Two commissioners wanted to involve the Tree Commission in this decision.
Steve Streeter, following comments by Emily Shandy, wanted to delay consideration of the project, “to get the tree commission involved in this.”
Streeter noted, “The absence of direction from the Tree Commission is something that we don’t have.”
Sheri Metzger shut it down interjecting, “I’m sorry to interrupt at this point, but I want to make sure that I noted that the tree commission doesn’t really have a role in this particular process. The trees are not under consideration. What’s under consideration here is the solar panels. I don’t know why we could go to them, I don’t know what we would ask them for, so if we need their feedback, I’m kind of puzzled as to what it would be for.”
Colin Walsh, who chairs the Tree Commission, also personally expressed concern about the removal being approved by staff without any public process.
“There is good reason citizens are upset by this lack of public process,” he told the Vanguard.
While there were many voices arguing that this should go before the Tree Commission, others pointed out that there is no clear language requiring the city to do so in cases like this.
That is something that probably needs to be cleaned up as the city looks to revise the tree ordinance.
“What happened here points to a need to better define the process for large scale tree removal and other projects,” Walsh told the Vanguard. “The the tree commission is attempting to address this in the revised tree ordinance which is the main focus of our work so far this year.”
He said his hope is to work with the council in order to better define the criteria that would trigger review by the commission.
“The current suggestion is any project that is over 5 acres, involves over 20 trees or 1 landmark tree, should come before the Tree Commission for review and recommendation,” he added.
Councilmember Will Arnold, who is liaison to the Tree Commission for the City Council, declined comment on this issue likely to come before the council.
Assistant City Manager Ashley Feeney told the Vanguard that “Sutter Hospital was prepared to fully mitigate under the existing Tree Ordinance for tree removal by maximizing onsite tree plantings and to pay the full mitigation fees for the balance that could not be mitigated through onsite plantings.”
He said that staff hopes that there can be a that comes out of the City Council appointed subcommittee (representatives from the Tree Commission and Natural Resources Commission) that “provides a reasonable approach to tree mitigation to encourage these types of photovoltaic carport installations in private parking lots while still maintaining a reasonable amount of strategically preserved canopy that does not interfere with solar production.”
He said, “Clear policies that provide a balanced approach to tree mitigation allowing for cost-effective photovoltaic installations in private parking lots will be helpful to address tree and photovoltaic conflicts. Incentivizing photovoltaics and a robust urban forest are both important tools to help address the City’s ambitious carbon neutrality goals.”
In the meantime, Alan Hirsch is a bit despondent. He often refers to himself as the Lorax—the fictional character in Dr. Seuss environmental satire who speaks for the trees, who have no other voice.
But, as Hirsch pointed out, the story does not end well for either the Lorax or the environment.
Hirsch said, “If you remember the story of the Lorax, nobody listens to him and all the trees are cut down. It’s a tragedy. And that’s what I’m feeling right now. What’s the point?”
The parties have until July 26 to appeal. Alan Hirsch in an email told the Vanguard he intends to do so. Sutter Hospital, according to city staff, has not yet appealed the decision, but is expected from some quarters to do so as well.
—David M. Greenwald reporting