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ROCHESTER – City leaders are split over an ambitious plan to add more than 80,000 trees here over the next 40 years.

The city of Rochester has worked on an urban forest plan since 2020 to better organize its arboreal efforts, but some Rochester City Council members say the costs involved — an estimated $660,000 to buy additional equipment and an estimated $426,000 annually to add 14 additional staff over the years — are too lofty for tree care.

"When it comes back with these step-function investments, I'm probably not going to be able to support this," Council Member Patrick Keane said Monday during a council study session.

The plan comes as Rochester focuses on more environmental efforts in recent years, from mass transportation to sustainable building efforts.

Rochester has about 700,000 public and private trees, with the city responsible for a little over 100,000. That comes out to about 28% tree shade, or canopy, coverage throughout the community according to a 2020 tree survey.

City officials want to increase canopy coverage to 35% by 2063. That means planting another 84,000 trees — the plan calls for the city to plant over 50,000 with the rest planted in private areas.

Yet the city has fallen behind in its forestry funding, according to Jeff Haberman, the city's forester. Rochester has added two arborist positions since 1970, from five to seven, while the city has massively grown over that time.

Rochester spends a little over $13 per tree while the industry average is closer to $45. The city is losing tree coverage by about 900 trees each year. And staff take care of trees on a 20-year pruning cycle, whereas foresters typically prune a tree on a seven-year cycle.

The forestry plan hopes to turn that around in two phases over the next four decades. In the plan's first phase, the city of Rochester would add five additional arborists by 2037 to get pruning down to every seven years, as well as additional equipment.

Staff would work to replace trees as they're removed, eliminating the city's annual net loss. The city would work on community partnerships, establishing a tree advisory board and explore potential funding opportunities to offset costs. That could include pest control fees, special assessment districts, tax levy increases, outside grants or even a potential carbon tax credit, which Haberman said some groups are looking into creating.

"Minnesota could pilot that and be the first in the country to offer urban trees as a carbon credit," he said.

City staff would ramp up tree planting from 2043 to 2063, solidify ongoing funding and hire seven more arborists, along with an administrative position and a volunteer coordinator.

Proponents say the increased tree cover would help the city offset storm water issues and increase residents' quality of life, among other benefits. Public policy experts say increased tree coverage helps cut down energy bills, improves community health and helps racial equity in neighborhoods.

"It's really imperative that we adopt something like this because it ties in with the future growth of the city," said Council Member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, who works as a garden designer. "This is not for us, this is for 50, 100 years down the road."

Though the council largely agreed with the plan's forestry goals, several council members said it would be difficult to approve the plan as is without getting outside funding as it could be tough to garner public support to increase taxes for more trees.

"I don't see the end result working out for us that we're going to be doing this," Council Member Shaun Palmer said.