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Ask Matt ... why'd they pave paradise, put up a parking lot?

A tree in Public parking lot. A tree in Public parking lot.

Q. Why are there so few shade trees in big parking lots here?  Don’t we have ordinances that require them?

   Trees take up space for customer parking plus they are costly. Some older shopping centers such as in Etowah never put them in but over time local ordinances changed to require trees. Still a tree planter surrounded by a four inch curb can easily cost a developer $500 or more.  

   Hunter Marks, a landscape architect with the Watermark firm, weighed in on tree survival. “A lot has to do with the compaction of the soil under the parking lot, lack of water, lack of maintenance, heat, and even shopping carts,” said Marks. “You’re putting trees in the middle of a battlefield.” Research has shown that trees do better when the underlying soil has sufficient oxygen and nutrients. Crushed stone under the asphalt is not friendly to tree roots.

   Most local ordinances require trees inside the parking lots despite the fact that trees around perimeter tend to grow better. Here’s a paradox – perimeter trees provide better shade but most are too far from a store’s entrance to do the customer any good. Aldi’s lot is an exception.  Amazon’s huge delivery facility in Mills River recently planted over 120 trees with the vast majority just off the lot. It’s a balance between esthetics and function.

   With Google’s help, our crack team of arborists surveyed the big box and grocery stores in the County and found the vast majority of them lacking shade trees – trees that actually provide shade! We also found that most trees are planted in end caps where shade only benefits a few cars. Lowes and Home Depot sell trees but neither have many growing in their lots and the coveted shaded spaces always seem to be snagged by employees. The parking lot next to Walmart has a dozen trees that offer shade trees but only a few near the store’s entrances. Aging Blue Ridge Mall has two dozen shade trees at best. Some 40 ornamental trees are scattered about but they do little to keep your dashboard from buckling on a hot day.

   “Developers are pulled in many directions. They want esthetics but also must follow local ordinances,” said Marks. “Landscape architects lay it all out for the client. We follow the rules,” he said. But the rules are anything but simple and they differ widely. For example Henderson County’s development ordinance calls for one tree for every five spaces while Mills River requires a tree and six shrubs for every ten spaces. Hendersonville bases its tree count on the size of the “vehicular use area” and Fletcher’s 26-page landscape ordinance simply requires that each parking space be within 50 feet of a shade tree.

   Size matters. The best way to grow a tree with a good shade canopy is plant it in a large bed. I compared four local development ordinances for minimum planter sizes. Henderson County had the smallest (130 sq. ft.) followed by Mills River (175 sq. ft.) and Fletcher (300 sq. ft). Hendersonville requires 360 sq. ft., about the area of two standard parking spaces. The large tree planters at Sam’s Club show what works. In parking lot parlance, it’s an urban forest! But trees can be a hindrance to shoppers. “We’ve seen shopping centers in beach communities that have strong ordinances but sometimes it’s hard to see the stores from behind the trees,” said Marks.

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