The Southport Board of Alderman took steps at its monthly meeting last Thursday to protect one of the city’s greatest treasures – its tree population.

Aldermen accepted a planning board recommendation to amend text concerning tree protection and landscaping regulations as growth in the area continues at a rapid pace. The approved draft created a new tree impact permit and established requirements for removal and safe zones, mitigation and canopy retention. Those found in violation of the new standards could face a civil penalty, and developers now must have a landscape architect or certified arborist prepare guidelines for how the proposed site will offer maximum protection to critical root zones during the building process.

“We are all well aware of the galloping building and development going on right now,” Alderman Lowe Davis said. “A new tree protection amendment is so necessary. We’re going to be overtaken if we don’t act.”

The board engaged in a lengthy discussion over the proposal as City Planner Thomas Lloyd fielded a plethora of questions related to lot sizes, canopies and root systems.

One of the additions to the text reduced the number of trees that can be removed in development rather than planting new substitutes with the purpose to prevent lot clearing.

“One large tree can lift up to 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air, helping to filter the air we breathe and control storm water,” the text said. “In our coastal location, Southport’s tree canopy protects our community and helps mitigate the damage caused by wind during tropical storms and hurricanes.”

The tree impact permit prohibited removing or damaging any protected tree or development activities with a critical root zone without approval. The permit is required for nonresidential, multi-family or major subdivisions.

Much of the confusion at the Nov. 11 meeting centered around the updated “tree plan.” Tree retention requirements for single or two-family residential lots ranged from one broadleaf canopy tree per 3,000-square-feet to five broadleaf canopy trees for a parcel 20,000-square-feet or more.

“It’s the different square footage and how many trees you would have to keep on that lot versus the different sizes,” said Lloyd.

Developers must plant trees in cases where the lot doesn’t have canopy trees and mitigation will be required in instances where retention requirements prohibit development.

The text banned indiscriminate tree removal, and outlined criteria needed for the issuance of a tree impact permit. In order to receive a tree impact permit, the applicant must establish that: either the tree is dead, diseased or in danger of falling; causing disruption of a utility service; posing an identifiable threat to pedestrian or vehicle safety; violates state or local safety standards; or the removal is necessary to enhance the health of adjacent trees or property.

Aldermen voted 4-2, with Aldermen Marc Spencer and Lora Sharkey, who wanted to see the item tabled, voting against the motion to adopt the text amendment. Some felt it should be tabled while others said that while the changes aren’t perfect, it’s a start.

In other business:

Aldermen approved a holiday bonus for all of the city’s full and part-time employees. Full time employees will receive $614.63 ($500 net) and part-time workers will get $270.71 ($250 net).

Aldermen approved a zoning amendment request for a 54.08 acre tract of land on Southport Crossing Way. The applicant asked that 10.01-acre section of the tract be rezoned from Planned Unit Development (PUD) to Highway Commercial (HC).

Alderman approved a zoning text amendment request by Paramounte Engineering that permitted outdoor display areas to remain overnight in areas zoned Highway Commercial.