University to investigate more specific regulations for protecting trees within construction sites

Cassandra Jaramillo

Stress on trees around campus may not be obvious as construction projects continue, but it has become a concern.

The University, which has been recognized for its care of its sustainable ecosystem, is looking at regulating specifications for construction sites on campus. Landscaping administrators have submitted an initial draft that proposes more consistent standards for construction projects, such as protecting critical tree root zones.

Jim Carse, assistant manager of urban forestry at UT, said the University’s tree care plan has criteria for protecting trees in construction sites, but they are not rigid enough. 

“We want to be good stewards of our resources because trees pay us back with so many ecosystem benefits and environmental benefits,” Carse said. 

As more construction projects are developed, a set of consistent standards could keep communication clear between contractors and in-house facility professionals.

Carse said construction around the Dell Medical School was an eye-opener to needing more specific protocols in place. 

“We weren’t able to save all the trees and we weren’t able to replace as many as we wanted to,” Carse said.  

The trees were still put to use ­— thirteen trees were transplanted and unsalvageable trees were repurposed as furniture for the Dell Medical School. Carse said there is a lot of support by administrators to better protect the trees, but moving forward, contractors used for these projects on campus could be more informed on native species.

Michael Embesi, division manager for the Community Tree Division for the city of Austin, said the city has some of the most progressive tree ordinances and codes in the country in regards to construction, but UT does not have to follow such guidelines. “Broadly speaking, UT is a state-owned property,” Embesi said. “And state-owned property is not subject to local jurisdiction.”

Jim Walker, director of the office of sustainability at UT and the liaison to the President’s Committee that will review the final document, said the committee will strive to make the best financial and environmental decision for updated plans.  

“We’d like to align in good faith with the city’s efforts as best as possible,” Walker said. 

Lisa Lennon, a landscape architect at UT, said some construction projects don’t go according to original landscaping plans which could harm trees. 

“There have been some projects that have had discrepancies and wouldn’t be in good health for some trees if plans went forward,” Lennon said. “We would like to see the assets preserved as best as possible.” Lennon said with better specifications in place, the regulations would be more accessible to contractors.

“Any contractor doing these landscapes would be able to follow these protocols,” Lennon said. 

Penalties or fines have not been discussed, but Carse said any infractions will be reviewed by University officials. Embesi said fines up to $2,000 are given in Austin when a tree is illegally removed or damaged. 

Walker said the UT office of sustainability is currently  reviewing the tree specifications, as well as other campus standards during construction projects. The comprehensive review will last for at least 18 months before getting final review.