A false debate opposes trees and housing

It is often said that local politics mirror global politics. Evidence of this belief was abundant at a recent Santa Rosa Planning Commission hearing to determine the fate of a 64-home, 10-acre development in our semi-rural community near the Fairgrounds of the Sonoma County.

The commission received more than 200 pages of public comments ahead of the meeting, mostly on traffic and trees. The latter problem boiled down to the need for trees versus the need for housing. The proposal calls for cutting down more than 90% of the 53 trees on the property, sparing only three valley oaks and planting replacements for the other trees in questionable environments where they are unlikely to thrive. The commissioners unanimously approved the project, succumbing to the argument that houses are more important than trees.

It’s local policy. The global policy is that similar decisions have been made around the world for thousands of years, essentially stripping the planet bare while the need for trees that absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen has never been also big. The people who made these decisions also succumbed to the argument that housing is more important than trees.

Housing versus trees is a false dichotomy. Just because a speaker presents a few choices doesn’t mean there aren’t other choices: there are always other choices. In the debate between housing and trees, other choices include limiting vacation rentals, requiring more tree-friendly architecture, and managing population growth.

If you search the Internet for “Santa Rosa City,” the first result you get is a Santa Rosa vacation rental ad. These rentals are reducing the number of homes available to full-time tenants in the city and represent a worrying trend that has reduced housing for local residents in tourist destinations such as Venice and Barcelona. Tourists should stay in hotels, not in houses that would otherwise be accessible to locals. In Santa Rosa, limiting these rentals would reduce the need for increasingly tree-destroying housing developments.

Tree-friendly architecture is exactly what it says: architecture that works with trees rather than against them. The idea that more than 90% of the trees in a given area must be felled to make way for an architectural design is absurd. Surely there are architects out there who can figure out how to build houses among existing trees and how to take advantage of the shade, birds and other benefits that trees bring to urban areas. Instead of cutting down 90% of the trees, the goal should be to preserve 90% of our friends the woods.

The ultimate solution in the housing versus trees debate is to manage population growth. Developers keep building new homes because more and more people want to buy those homes. If the demand for houses equaled the supply, the groaning of chainsaws and hammering would no longer be necessary. Instead, we could live in the same state of balance as the trees that once covered the Santa Rosa plain.

The choices are linked. Anything we can do to limit the demand for homes in Santa Rosa will benefit the majestic trees that tower above us, absorbing our toxic carbon dioxide and emitting the oxygen we depend on for life.

Steve Osborn is a retired writer and editor who lives in Santa Rosa.

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