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Mature trees becoming casualties of retail development; McAllen landscape ordinance lacks teeth to save them

McALLEN — First there were seven. Now there are only four. Soon there may only be two.
/ Source: The McAllen Monitor

McALLEN — First there were seven. Now there are only four. Soon there may only be two.

Live oak trees estimated to be 50 to 100 years old are disappearing from a site on North 10th Street to make way for the new retail center that outgoing Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia is developing in conjunction with a Houston-based real estate investment trust.

The developers said they are trying to preserve the trees. But with the ink barely dry on a new municipal landscape ordinance aimed at promoting a greener McAllen, some residents and even some city officials are concerned about the message that is being conveyed.

"(The developers) have been offered incentives by City Hall to try to save those trees and preserve them and basically they’ve been very condescending and said, in essence, ‘We don’t give a damn what you think,’" said Nedra Kinerk, a member of the local public interest group Futuro McAllen. "It shows a blatant disregard for what is good for McAllen."

Garcia, however, said he doesn’t want to get rid of the trees at the burgeoning Las Fuentes center on North 10th Street and Dove Avenue any more than anyone else does.

"I love trees," he said. "We wanted to save them, and we donated them to the city, but they weren’t able to move them, because they said that it was going to cost close to $40,000 per tree, and it still wasn’t guaranteed that they were going to survive, so they didn’t want to chance it.

"I’m going to make an effort to save two of them and put them some place."

McAllen’s parking ordinance, coupled with the planned location of some of the buildings, made saving the other trees impossible, despite the variances the city offered to try to entice the developers to take a different approach, Garcia said.

"There was no way I could have complied with their parking requirements," he explained. "Even if the city were to say, ‘OK, we’ll cut it in half,’ the business still wants spots, so we have to strike an equitable balance there."

Moving the trees off site was not a viable option, city officials said, citing logistical challenges; the cost involved in hiring a contractor with the necessary expertise and equipment; and the uncertainty that the trees would survive the process.

"They told us that we could have the trees in city parks if we wanted them, but they’re just too big to move along the streets or highways," said Larry Pressler, director of the McAllen Parks and Recreation Department.

That left the city with the option of trying to convince the developers to revise their project design so that the trees would be spared.

McAllen does not have anything in its landscape ordinance that prohibits removing vegetation.

"It’s unfortunate, because those are some of the largest live oak trees — perhaps the largest oak trees — in McAllen, and they predate virtually anybody in McAllen," Pressler said.

JuliRankin, McAllen’s administrator of urban development, warned the developers that they risked alienating the public by removing the trees.

"As we mentioned early on in this, it’s really a goodwill thing in the city," she said. "Those trees have been there for at least 50 years. People pass that location all the time. They know those trees are there. And if you can’t leave them, for whatever reason, I think that it’s not going to reflect very well in the community response."

Replacing such mature live oaks trees isn’t easy. One such tree at the Texas A&M University Agricultural Research & Extension Center in Weslaco has a trunk diameter of more than 4 feet, is about 52 feet tall and has an average canopy spread of about 85 feet at the crown, said Paul Johnson, a regional urban forester with the Texas Forest Service.

McAllen needs a "good, strong tree ordinance so that developers know what is expected of them from the beginning," Johnson said, explaining it may already be too late to save the remaining live oaks at Las Fuentes; soil compaction associated with the construction could have already irreversibly damaged their root systems.

"Those aren’t the trees that you want to fall on your sword about," he said. "You don’t want to cause a lot of ill will trying to get them to save these trees at this point.

"You’ve got to turn it around, look at the silver lining and go, ‘OK, this is why we have to have the regulations in place so that we can encourage them to protect trees like that in the future.’"


Marc B. Geller covers McAllen and general assignments for