Changes to policy regarding protection of designated heritage trees and the construction of tiny homes in Ridgefield were chief among discussions with the city council last week, though a final vote on both issues has been postponed until the finer points get sketched out.

Ridgefield's City Council discussed the approval of the two ordinances during its public meeting July 27. Although originally up for a final vote at the meeting, City Manager Steve Stuart said after public hearings on the ordinances “it became clear to staff that we were not hitting the mark … with the proposed ordinance(s) for what the council had asked us to look into.” 

Given that, no vote was taken, but several key focuses for both ordinances were addressed.

The heritage tree ordinance would require a permit from the city to remove designated trees, according to documents provided to the council. 

Pruning of heritage trees would be allowed under the ordinance based on International Society of Arboriculture standards. In the event of “imminent danger” to public safety or property damage, a heritage tree could be removed without a permit, but only if a permit is applied to within 30 days of removal while accompanied by a recommendation from an ISA-certified arborist.

Violations would carry a fine up to $500 and a stipulation to replant the same species of tree three times over (three trees for every one removed) with similar diameters at breast-height (a measurement used frequently in the ordinance based on the diameter of a tree at about 4.5 feet).

The biggest issue councilors addressed was what exactly a heritage tree was. The definition found in the draft document was broad, including all non-nuisance, non-street trees with a breast-height diameter of 12 inches or more, and only on properties smaller than 20,000 square feet.

“I really think if you’re going to dump every tree into the classification of a heritage tree, there’s got to be some limitations there,” Councilor David Taylor said. “I don’t believe every tree becomes a heritage tree because of its size.”

Most councilors were in agreement that a 12-inch diameter was too small. Suggestions were made about expanding that to 24-inch diameter.

Councilor John Main was first to voice some suggestions, such as having a category for 12-to-24-inch diameter trees, putting them under review for whether or not they required a permit.

Main also wanted to see the ordinance city-wide, not just on parcels smaller than 20,000 square-feet, something that fellow councilor Lee Wells warned was possibly too restrictive.

More on the environmental and sustainable route, Councilor Darren Wertz said he wanted to talk about “trees as trees,” given their lifespans generally outrun residents’ by a good lead and thus outlast the interests of the property owner. He proposed a sort of heritage tree review as one route to take.

“If somebody saw a tree that was in danger and thought that it should be a heritage tree, they could come to the city and the city could put a stay on that,” Wertz explained, adding that then the qualities of the tree would be assessed.

Wertz gave a few examples of some criteria such as significant age, physical characteristics or socially commemorative history, referencing the Charter Oak — a Connecticut tradition surrounding a tree supposedly containing the colony’s charter — as an example of the last aspect.

Wertz said that protecting such trees was “giving due husbandry” to an environmental asset of the city.

“But just to say that (the tree exceeds diameter) I think is way short of a cogent approach on what a heritage tree is,” Wertz added.

Tiny homes

Apart from tree business, the possibility of allowing so-called “tiny homes” in city limits was also mulled over by councilors. 

City of Ridgefield Development Director Jeff Niten explained the stipulations of the ordinance which in Ridgefield’s case would specifically require such structures to be permanently affixed to a foundation, not mobile or on wheels as some units are.

That did not preclude prefabrication, he elaborated, but that units wouldn’t be mobile once placed.

As to why the city needed an ordinance specifically for tiny homes, Niten said due to the size of the unit some building code standards would be unfeasible, including exits and energy code compliance.

As per the ordinance, developments would require a minimum of four units in the development with a maximum of 24, though a clustering provision would keep clusters of tiny homes at a maximum of 12 per cluster.

Although explained at length, both ordinances won’t become city code until an affirmative vote by council at a subsequent meeting.

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