Covington To Organization: Downtown Trees Can't Be Brought Down

Aug 6, 2019

The Point/Arc of Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati is constructing a brand new building on Washington Street directly to the north of its longtime home on Pike Street.

As part of its expansion, three trees on Washington Street should come down, executive director Judy Gerding said.

But Covington's urban forestry board and city arborist said no.

And then, in a 3-2 vote, the city commission overturned the board, with Mayor Joe Meyer casting the tie-breaking vote. His son, Chris Meyer, is an architect from Hub + Weber, and is working on the Point project.

But because the trees are located in an historic preservation overlay zone, another city board had to offer its consideration, too.

The urban design review board, like the urban forestry board, said no.

On Monday, the city commission, in a 3-1 vote, upheld the UDRB's decision, which was only evaluated on whether it was capricious or arbitrary.

Mayor Meyer is out of town and was not present on Monday. Commissioners Michelle Williams, Tim Downing, and Shannon Smith voted to uphold the UDRB decision while Commissioner Denny Bowman voted against the motion.

Bowman, Williams and Meyer previously voted in favor of overturning the urban forestry board decision.

"There was not financial benefit to me or any member of my family. We were voting on a proposed legal settlement involving The Point as prepared by our city attorney," Mayor Meyer said in a statement to The River City News when asked in June about his vote and whether there was a conflict of interest. "I didn’t see an application related to a project – only a proposed settlement related to a potential fine governing trees."

The Point has 30 days to decide whether it will appeal the city commission's decision to Kenton Circuit Court.

"I think they are the most unsightly thing you can pass," Gerding said. "The most the city has ever done is mulch them maybe once or twice in our 40 years. We have been mulching the area, planted shrubs in the area, planted flowers in the area. The roots are so high above the ground, people that walk there can trip. And whose liability is that?"

Chris Meyer, the architect, argued to the UDRB and again on Monday to the city commission, that the trees are not historic, having only been planted there in the mid-1970s, and not meeting the minimum 50-year threshold for historic designation.

They are not, he said, heritage trees.

Assistant City Solicitor Cassandra Zoda said that whether the trees are historic is irrelevant, and that heritage trees are defined as being over two stories, which the three trees in question are.

"It is based on the size of the trees rather than the historic nature of the trees," Zoda said. "I think it's clear from the record that (the UDRB) followed all the procedures. The guidelines are very clear."

"By itself, it's not clear," Chris Meyer said. "Does that mean as tall as the second story or exceeds the whole thing?" He argued that a tree could be purchased today and grow as tall the ones currently on Washington Street within four years. "You can have a four-year-old tree that is now counted as a heritage tree. I do not believe that is what is intended to be included in a heritage tree. A four-year-old tree from Home Depot almost by definition cannot be a heritage tree."

Gerding and the Point did not simply want to take the trees down because they find them unsightly. They have impeded construction progress, she said, with workers having limited access to the site. Additionally, if the trees were to remain, plans for water infrastructure below the ground to service the new building would have to be rerouted, costing the nonprofit organization another $6,500.

Gerding said the Point would plant new trees in their place, ones that would match the trees planted recently near the Duveneck Square apartment project. 

"It's not like we're not replacing these trees with much more attractive looking trees," Gerding said. "This new building will be the most attractive building in Covington, and for us to have these trees, it just doesn't make common sense anymore."

The Point, which provides services to individuals with intellectual and development disabilities, sees its new $2.5 million, three-story Zembrodt Education Center as an opportunity to provide the space needed to continue to offer employment services, pre-vocational skills, and career exploration classes to individuals. It will also allow the organization's social communication program and education services to grow, the Point said in a news release last year.

This story first appeared on The River City News. For more stories like this, visit rcnky.com now