Monday, August 3, 2009

Where Have All the Oak Trees Gone?

The thing that surprises most first-time visitors I meet is how leafy Houston is, even inside the Loop, near downtown. When we moved into this 6th floor condo unit in 2002, I compared our view to the prized one from Fifth Avenue in New York, looking out over the canopy of trees in Central Park.

The amazing thing to us, even then, was that what looked like the treescape of a park from above, was actually a neighborhood of homes where people lived in harmony with the shade around them.

The ensuing seven years have seen tropical disturbances, construction, economic melt-down, a recession. The first of these would have been expected to damage our trees to some degree, and it did. It is the second, though, that has been responsible for the vastly greater damage, despite financial problems that should at least have brought it to a temporary halt.

MacMansions are on the march down Piping Rock west of Maconda, near River Oaks.

When we stand on our balcony looking to the southwest, the green canopy that once stretched toward the Loop has been replaced by gray expanses of roof in such close proximity that no oak tree can survive. Which is probably moot since whatever might have been there was removed for construction. If one or two remain out near the street, they present the sad aspect of patients with a terminal disease, their canopies thinning, their limbs serially amputated, a pitiful sight.

Higher density building is happening all over the neartown suburbs of Houston, and in many areas it is welcomed for the demand it will create for mass transit. Loss of trees is generally compensated for by decreased pollution damage from automobiles.

The MacMansions, though, do not contribute to beneficial urban population densities. They’re single-family houses and we’ve seen no sign of the large families one might expect to occupy them. You might call them “underoccupied” from the point of view of how much electricity they consume for cooling and other basic activities.

In the areas where this is happening, therefore, we are seeing the negatives of density with none of the potential positives. We’re losing our trees, and with them the oxygen they produce to help in our battle for clean air; we’re losing one of the few sources of natural beauty in our city—the one most likely to be noticed by visitors and tourists. And we’re getting nothing for it.

I should point out than when these oversized houses are planned for River Oaks, at least, a sign is posted noting that a variance has been requested. The variance, when granted, allows a house to be built that exceeds the neighborhood’s size restrictions. And they are always granted. I would like to know why. And I would like that answer to be public and specific.

11 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Sad when trees disappear I agree, particularly when they go to leave room for houses. When I was in Houston a couple of years ago on holiday I found the weather very humid and was told that from there through to the Gulf of Mexico was largely reclaimed marshland. Is your climate always humid?

Bdogs said...

Oh, yes. I think we invented humidity as we crawled out of the wetlands of which there once were many between Houston and the Gulf. Not solidly marsh by any means, rather a coastal prairie (flat, flat) through which bayous (narrow slow moving freshwater streams) meander on their way to the Gulf. We consider 90% humidity about normal!

Sydney said...

Back from a long time away from the computer.... I feel your pain. It's such a DAMN shame that man is so industrious. WHy not use the same wits that invented so many great things to also know when to STOP!!!

Ralph W. said...

You asked why the variances are always granted. I live in an area with zoning. Approximately 15 years ago, I discovered that a non-compliance structure was to be built on the lot adjoining me to the north. I contacted the proper people prior to the start of construction and nothing happened. I continued to push the issue w/o any results. By law, I was supposed to recieve any notice of variance hearings. Those notices were sent (w/o my name on them) to the Wisconsin company I worked for. My case was of interest to a lot of people, especially lawyers, because many in Houston were of the mind that zoning would save them. One very well known attorney told me that I would be certain to prevail in court, although it might be at the appelate level. The problem was that I would likely spend over $100,000 and then the city council would just turn around and change the ordinance. Our state laws are written to allow that. Finally, the city attorney admitted that the structure was illegal. He also admitted that I had not been properly notified. At that same meeting, the city council voted to change the zoning ordinance to allow for the structure. Only two members supported me, even though I had strong support from my neighbors. That attorney also told me that if you hold certain positions with developing companies or builders, your job obligations include getting elected or appointed to selected boards. He went on to say that the builders and developers had too much power at all levels of government across the United States but Texas had the worst problem and Harris County was the worst of the lot.

Bdogs said...

Ralph, wow, do I agree with that!

pjhornberger said...

I'm missing your posts and the oaks. Did that rhyme? Close, so close. And I miss your photos. Ya'll have a good week.

Anonymous said...

Bdogs, where have you gone? Please come back. Jonny

sizzie said...

bdogs, I just dropped in and see you haven't been here for a while. I will just say hi and tell you I will be back soon.

Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for the next post. I don't give up easily. Jonny

Sydney said...

Hi Bdgos, I am joining in with a little bit of concern to see how you are. This is where it's hard to really only be "online" friends. I know you live near somewhere --- I hope you took off on a wild spur of the moment trip around the world or something. Seems that you would be getting people's earlier queries of how you are and answered so I hope everything is well in your world and you pop in and say hi to us soon.

You are missed!

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