Pine trees, all with diameters of more than 30 inches, stand near Garan Manufacturing plant off Highway 12 in Starkville on Friday. Developer Mark Castleberry plans to cut down the 64 trees around the plant to make way for a retail shopping center expected to be built next year, though city code states developers must preserve at least 50 percent of trees with a diameter of at least 10 inches. Starkville's landscape advisory board granted Castleberry a variance in a 5-1 vote Wednesday, but Starkville aldermen must also approve the variance. Photo by: Antranik Tavitian/Dispatch Staff
September 5, 2020 7:01:27 PM
Starkville's landscape advisory board voted 5-1 on Wednesday to remove the 64 pine trees that tower over Highway 12 near the intersection with Industrial Park Road, where the Garan Manufacturing building will be replaced in about a year with a retail shopping center.
Garan is scheduled to move to a new location at the North Star Industrial Park in northern Starkville, and the new development by Castle Properties will include an ALDI grocery store. Developers must preserve at least 50 percent of trees with a diameter of at least 10 inches at new developments, according to Section 16.7 of the city's unified development code approved in December after nearly three years of rewriting.
Variances from the city code must be approved by the appropriate board or commission and then by the board of aldermen. The pine trees near Garan have diameters of more than 30 inches and have been there for decades, said Pete Melby, the dissenting vote on the landscape advisory board. He said he would prefer the development be entirely up to code and not require a variance.
"If we have rules regarding mature trees ... why didn't the developer create a plan that saves them instead of completely ignoring (the rules)?" said Melby, a retired member of the Mississippi State University landscape architecture faculty.
The aldermen will decide at their Sept. 15 meeting whether to grant Castleberry permission to remove the trees.
According to Section 3.7.1 of the city code, the criteria for providing a variance to a developer include "special conditions" of the land that do not exist elsewhere, and that the city does not allow more than the minimum deviation from the code.
Castle Properties owner Mark Castleberry said the development will have an underground water detention system in order to comply with Starkville's stormwater ordinance, which means the Garan site will be completely razed and the new dirt on top of the trees' roots will eventually kill them.
The stormwater ordinance, updated in August 2019, states that developments must be able to mitigate storm-water runoff to accommodate a 100-year weather event, which is defined as a rainfall of 9.4 inches over a 24-hour period.
"Admittedly, we have a concern about tall pine trees, that if one does construction anywhere close to them, in a strong windstorm (they're) a bit notorious for blowing over," Castleberry said.
The retail center will include 75 new, smaller trees throughout and around the parking lot, of a variety of species, Castleberry said.
Richard Harkess, chairman of the landscape advisory board and a member of the plant science faculty at MSU, agreed with Castleberry that the pines would not survive the disturbance to their roots and said the selection of new trees, including oaks, will be better for the environment.
"From a standpoint of nature, oaks are more beneficial than pines as a general rule, and a mixed canopy with various trees is more beneficial than a monoculture of one species," Harkess said.
'Going to change the fabric of Starkville'
Mayor Lynn Spruill said she does not know if the aldermen are likely to vote to remove the pine trees, but she would prefer that developers not cut down all the trees at a site if they can avoid it.
"It's all a reasonable balancing act of allowing growth and development to happen without compromising aesthetics and the surrounding community," Spruill told The Dispatch.
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, whose ward includes the Garan site, said Castleberry has a good track record as a developer, but she has not yet seen the plans for the site, so "it's probably premature to be discussing anything (about tree removal) until Garan moves out."
Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty opposed the development of the shopping center via a tax-increment financing plan, which the board approved in August 2019. Under a TIF plan, the city issues bonds to reimburse a developer for certain infrastructure built at the development after a year of sales tax performance there.
Beatty told The Dispatch on Saturday that he believes Castleberry should have planned the development so it would not require the removal of all 64 pine trees as an acknowledgement of the use of taxpayer money to build the site.
"It would have been nice if he'd come forward and said, 'I understand it's important to save some trees, and I'm going to do everything I can do to save some of those big pine trees on that property,'" Beatty said. "Apparently that's not the case, and I'm disappointed."
Melby said the trees contribute not only to the character of the city but also the health of the environment by providing homes for wildlife, producing shade and oxygen and capturing runoff from storms. They also provide a border for the heavily traveled Highway 12, and people would drive faster without it, he said.
Spruill said the trees keep Highway 12 from feeling too "industrial," and Melby agreed.
"If we keep going, we're going to look like Meridian and Jackson and lose all these trees on the major corridor going to Walmart, going west of town," Melby said. "It's a real travesty."
Spruill said she trusts that Castleberry's development will be "well maintained and well thought-out." Castleberry said he would not plan to cut down all the trees if it were not absolutely necessary.
"The project is going to change the fabric of Starkville by removing a 60-year-old factory and 40-year-old pines," he said. "It will disturb people, and I acknowledge that, when the trees come down, but I think with patience they'll see that what replaces (them) will be different but will better service the community and also become a part of the community."
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