A draft tree policy in Wichita would apply to city-owned land, including College Hill Park. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
A draft tree policy in Wichita would apply to city-owned land, including College Hill Park. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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A tree policy drafted by the city of Wichita became more focused on regulating trees on city-owned land — and leaving out private property — after a meeting that included a developer and a nonprofit focused on downtown revitalization.

The city currently removes at least twice as many trees as it plants each year, a deficit the policy aims to reduce by crafting tree planting and density requirements on city property. The city published a draft of the policy for public review on April 1.

The April 1 document states that the policy only applies to city property and lays out voluntary actions private property owners can take to help the area’s tree canopy. An earlier draft the city presented to a private meeting of academics and developers in February did not state that the policy would only apply to public land.

Representatives of CanopyICT, an advocacy group aimed at growing the city’s tree canopy, said they worried that the meeting impacted whether the policy would apply to private developments.

“I’ve kind of got to put a flag on the play, because two of the five people that advised this policy represented private development,” Steve Howard, a founder of CanopyICT, said at an April 12 meeting of the Board of Park Commissioners, which is a seven-member advisory panel for the city’s parks and recreation department.

But Troy Houtman, the city’s parks and recreation director, said that the early draft didn’t have to specify that it only applied to city-owned land because it was meant to be an internal city policy, which only regulates city land. The meeting aimed to gather feedback from experts, he added.  

“If you’re going to build a bridge or build a street, you’re going to get an engineer to help you out with that,” Houtman said. “These folks are professionals, experts, academics. I wanted to get their perspective on something before I have to come up with a foundation to bring here.”

City Manager Robert Layton said the city doesn’t have any set way it does research to create policy, but he said talking to experts is a norm. 

“What they did in this case, I actually applaud, because what they wanted to do is get some other local experts involved to give us feedback on what we were seeing other cities do,” Layton said. 

The public can review and give feedback on the current tree policy through April 27 on the city’s website, Forum. The city rolled out the new online tool last fall to boost civic engagement.

‘There’s no big secrets there’

The city started researching tree policies in other cities in November at the request of the park board. It created an early draft of the policy by Feb. 1. Houtman said that the city shared the draft with a group of five experts — an associate professor of landscape architecture at Kansas State University, a professor at Wichita State’s Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs, a horticulturist, a developer and a representative of Downtown Wichita, which is a nonprofit aimed at developing downtown.

The group came together in February in a private virtual meeting, Houtman said. They discussed policy questions, including what difficulties they saw in implementing the policy, tree density, exemptions and maintenance requirements.

Houtman said feedback from the group included keen interest in putting a tree policy in place as well as adding incentives for private developers that would address the cost of new regulations. 

Marvin Schellenberg, president of Schellenberg Development Co., was a part of the conversation. He said the group also discussed tree policy mandates on private property, which he discouraged. The Wichita-based company develops residential and commercial projects.

“We ended up on that the city’s going to work on their stuff and implement their policies and doing leading by example,” Schellenberg said. “And there are things they can do to incentivize people to do stuff and encourage new development to do stuff.”

The discussion reviewed the challenges of enforcing the tree policy on private property, according to Jason Gregory, executive vice president of Downtown Wichita and an attendee at the meeting.

“While no one said it couldn’t be done, we simply asked the questions of how it would work, what enforcement would cost, etc,” Gregory wrote in an email to The Beacon. “We also discussed how it could affect private property owners who are on fixed incomes or experiencing other financial challenges.”

Both Schellenberg and Gregory said that the meeting was just meant to gather information and that they knew their input was just the first step in developing the policy. 

“To get our perspective on it, what’s doable,” Schellenberg said. “There’s no big secrets there. It’s just sharing some knowledge.”

How the tree policy changed

Since the February meeting, the city released two more drafts of the proposed tree policy. Both included language stating that the policy applies only to city development, a provision that’s not included in the February draft. 

Both later drafts also specify voluntary actions that private property owners can take to support tree growth, like pruning trees that are diseased or removing trees that are dead. The February draft did not. 

Houtman said that the tree policy was supposed to be an internal city policy and therefore only applied to public lands — even though it was not specified in the initial draft of the document.

“Our policy would not have jurisdiction of private property because it cannot be regulated, which would take an ordinance,” Houtman wrote in an email to The Wichita Beacon.

Both Houtman and Layton said that the feedback from the development community did not have an outsized influence on the policy draft published in April. 

“They did not really have an impact on how we drafted this policy,” Houtman said at the April 12 park board meeting. “They gave us insight on what are going to be our impediments.” 

Houtman said he would promise “till the day I die” that no assurances were made to private developers regarding the policy.

“I’m a tree hugger. I’ve been working with trees over 25 years in parks and recreation,” Houtman said. “I know the value of trees, I know how important they are. There was no promises given to them.” 

Steve Howard, a founder of CanopyICT, walks under trees in College Hill Park. He has raised concerns about a private meeting the city hosted as it developed a new trees policy. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Who shapes new city policies?

The city’s private meeting was met with skepticism by members of CanopyICT, who were frustrated that they were not included and expressed concern about the involvement of developers. 

The meeting “did not include representatives of neighborhoods, environmentalists or small businesses directly involved with planting, caring for and removing trees,” Harold Schlechtweg, another founder of CanopyICT, said at the April 12 park board meeting.

But Houtman said it made sense to start gathering feedback from professionals and experts to develop the best policy.

“We need to start somewhere,” Houtman said. 

Houtman pointed out that private meetings are a normal step in creating policy in Wichita — whether the meetings are with academics, developers, private citizens or advocates. When the city developed an aquatics master plan, he met with residents interested in swim teams and discussed how the city’s facilities could accommodate them, Houtman added.  

Layton also pointed out that, in preparing the Trap, Neuter, Release program in 2018, he had discussions with local stakeholders in favor of and opposed to the policy before taking it to the Wichita Animal Services Advisory Board. 

“I had some meetings with them and got input, and that helped them shape the policy that went forward,” Layton said. 

Schlechtweg, who worked until 2015 as the business representative for the union that represents city employees, agreed that it’s the city’s usual process as it develops new policies. 

“A policy or policy idea comes to the city and the ‘stakeholders’ who have a vested interest are brought together and city staff works with them to put together a policy or ordinance,” Schlechtweg wrote in an email to The Beacon. “Unfortunately, the city’s idea of ‘stakeholders’, at least for the past decade and more, doesn’t seem to include people from the neighborhoods affected or environmentalists.”

While Layton and Houtman hope that the practice will improve city policymaking, Schlechtweg said it’s corroded his trust in city government — and left him with questions about who is prioritized in local policymaking.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.