How do we value trees in our urban environments? This Is the question that was brought to the fore at last week’s Tweed Council planning meeting during the debate of the development application (DA22/0357) for 14 apartments and swimming pools for 9 and 11 Murphys Road, Kingscliff. The DA will requires the removal of a paperback tree that ‘is referred to as “iconic” by somebody making a submission against the DA,’ said Councillor Dr Nola Firth.
$945 or $45,500? What is the value of a tree?
The valuation of the paperbark tree that will be removed was put at $945 by the arborist reporting for the developer to the council on the DA.
‘The [arborists] report said that it was reasonable and proportionate, that this tree could go so that development could happen,’ Cr Firth explained.
Councillor Firth took issue with the valuation and pointed out that the 12 metre high and 65 centimetres at breast height paperbark tree would be valued at $45,500 if they had used the same internationally accepted table of values, developed by the International Society of Arboriculture and the American Council of tree and landscape appraisers, that both the Manningham City Council and the Melbourne Council use.
‘I mean the difference it’s just astonishing,’ said Cr Firth.
‘And that is before tree species aesthetics, locality, tree condition, removal, and reinstatement costs are factored in. In Melbourne these trees are valued and are publicly listed assets. And for many of the trees the average price is about $60,000.’
What are trees worth?
Trees in urban environments add significant value or ‘natural capital’ that numerous studies over recent years have sought to quantify. According to a study by Theodore Endreny, Professor and Unit Head in the Department of Environmental Resources Engineering at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) in 2017 ‘For every dollar invested in planting, cities see an average US$2.25 return on their investment each year’ when looking at megacities.
‘We calculated that tree cover was linked to significant cost savings. Each square kilometer saved about $0.93 million in air pollution health care costs, $20,000 by capturing water runoff, and $478,000 in building energy heating and cooling savings.’
Other benefits of trees in urban environments include making streets safer, improving air and cooling and greening cities.
Tweed cool towns
‘We are embarking on a cool town’s strategy. We have a very good cool towns strategy, but it is about valuing our urban trees and linking that to our internationally important environment that is the most biodiverse place in the state,’ said Cr Firth.
‘We need to be thinking about these kinds of issues very seriously, The report said that it was reasonable and proportionate that this tree could go so that development could happen. ‘I am not able to vote for the motion and want to raise this issue. This is something that we as a community need to be thinking about.’
Approval for the DA was put forward by Councillor Warren Polgalse (Conservative) and seconded by Cr James Owen (Liberal) though neither spoke to the motion or responded to Cr Firth’s comments.
Mayor Chris Cherry (Independent) acknowledged Cr Firth’s concerns as ‘very valid’ but noted that ‘the staff have done quite a lot of work to make this into a better proposal than it was at the beginning’.
‘There have been quite a few improvements made and it is in R3 zoning. So this kind of development is permissible. The neighbouring developments are a similar type development, although slightly smaller scale,’ said Cr Cherry.
‘I think that the concerns that were raised in the objections in terms of privacy we have looked at [and there are] better privacy screens for the neighbouring houses. The access into the literal rainforests to the water has been removed so that that literal rainforest can be protected. I think it’s as good as we can get at this time.’
Call for standard tree valuation
Cr Firth said that the valuation of the tree was the key reason she could not vote to approve the DA and told The Echo that, ‘We need to establish a reasonable standard of tree valuation to be used across the Tweed Shire’.
The DA was approved with councillors Cr Chris Cherry (Mayor), Cr Rhiannon Brinsmead, Cr Meredith Dennis (Deputy Mayor), Cr James Owen, Cr Warren Polglase voting in favour and Cr Nola Firth voting against. Cr Reece Byrnes was absent from the meeting.
standard developer BS. They need to be reigned in, call-out for illegalities and held accountable like every average Joe is when they’re putting in a DA. Affording the best lawyers doesn’t mean you should escape the reality everyone else is living in.
In 2022 an Australian Minimum Industry Standard was published for the Amenity valuation of trees – MIS506. It is similar to the City of Melbourne method but calibrated using independent data from Australian nurseries as its basis so it can be readily used by NSW LGA’s if they wish (they just need to know it’s available since it’s so new). The valuation around the $45,000 mark is likely to be ballpark-correct. The $945 figure is a gross misrepresentation of this tree’s current amenity value – it’s likely to have been calculated as the cost of replacing it with a small sapling or tube-stock. This is why we needed a standard to be published and used – and now we have one.
I think that all the above assessment proceeds from a misunderstanding of the cited University research findings. What that research proves is that there is a very high benefit to cost outcome for local government investment in tree planting. The ratio should be looked at in the context of whether the Council’s limited resources could be more optimally invested in tree planting than other discretionary budget expenses that cannot come close to providing a better benefit:cost outcome.
Now, the residential housing shortage is also an area where serious economic dis-benefits exist. Whacking a $45,000 cost burden for every mature tree on a new block of residential can only guarantee the the shortage problem will get much worse.
It is a question of taking a balanced assessment. A $945 tree removal development (if it is fully allocated to the Council’s tree planting budget) will produce several mature trees in say, 15 years. So if the $45,000 value of the tree removed today is more than offset in 15 years time (using a discounted rate of amenity loss deflator) of the $945 increase in today’s Council budget allocation to tree planting, you approve the DA and also do some good with the housing shortage. The $945 tree removal fee may be a bit low or high – but economic science cannot be used to set it at $45,000.