By Kim Steele
Killeen Daily Herald
Two dying shrubs in front of Harker Heights' Furniture Row stand out like sore thumbs to vehicles traveling west along Central Texas Expressway.
Flanked by a row of shiny green shrubs and young trees, the brown plants are a vivid reminder of the searing sun's heat and a deadly lack of rain this summer. The brittle shrubs also are part of the reason Harker Heights is considering a change in its business landscape ordinance.
Currently, the ordinance requires vegetative landscaping to be maintained in good health. Dead, damaged or diseased landscaping must be replaced promptly, the ordinance notes, and any replacement landscaping must be of substantially the same type.
For businesses like those in upscale Furniture Row - including Oak Express, Bedroom Expressions, Denver Mattress and Sofa Mart - that have lost carefully tilled plants for any reason, especially drought, that's a scary prospect; there's no guarantee those expensive landscaping elements won't perish again for the same reasons.
That's why Harker Heights officials are leaning toward allowing businesses to replace dead, damaged or diseased growth with a variety of options, from native, drought-resistant plants to rocks. Officials hope it will lessen the financial burden on businesses and encourage them to beautify their lots.
"Things have been green for the most part, and our landscapers have worked hard to keep the property looking good," said Adam Brown, manager of the complex. "I hope we don't have to replace anything, but we probably will. Any ordinance that gives us more options and flexibility would be beneficial and make sense to us."
According to the current ordinance, businesses in Harker Heights must plant a specific number of trees, shrubs and other groundcover, such as sod or live grass. The required amount is based on the property's road frontage. The ordinance also suggests using native species that conserve water.
City Manager Steve Carpenter said the ordinance was created to make the city look nicer by requiring trees and plants that screen and shade areas around businesses. But that was in 2006, said Carpenter, before the droughts of 2009 and this year - and the threat of more to come.
Devastation in area
State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon recently predicted the drought could last until 2020. The professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University also said he sees many similarities between conditions now and during the worst recorded drought in Texas history, which lasted from 1950 to 1957.
"The drought has been bad this summer, and it looks like it's going to last for a while," said Carpenter. "Businesses are supposed to replace what's dead or damaged, but is it sensible to replace it when it's just going to die again? We have to take a look at our ordinance and make a change."
Fred Morris, Harker Heights' director of planning and development, said the drought has devastated the area. Larger businesses with irrigation systems are doing better than smaller businesses forced to cut back on hand-watering to save money, however. Also, native plant species have survived better, he said.
To top it off, the city instituted a Stage 1 Voluntary Water Conservation notice on Aug. 17, requiring water customers to limit outdoor water use to once every five days. The city's goal is to keep average daily water demand at or below 7.2 million gallons.
"The water police are out in this drought, and if you're watering when you shouldn't be, they'll stop you," said Morris. "But the landscape police are not out. Replacing business landscaping is inconvenient and expensive, and the city wants to help with this problem."
In Killeen, the business landscape ordinance is similar, calling for dead, damaged, diseased or displaced landscaping to be promptly replaced or repaired. The 2004 ordinance requires that replacement material be similar in type and character to the dead landscaping.
Hilary Shine, Killeen's executive director of public information, said the city is flexible about the time frame and type of replacement. The ordinance suggests that native or drought-resistant plants should be used wherever possible, and even provides a list of native trees.
"This terrible drought is taking its toll on plants and trees throughout our city, but to our property owners' credit, Killeen has not seen a marked increase in cases of landscaping needing to be replaced," said Shine. "That said, in cases where plants or trees do need to be replaced, our building official works with the property owner. ... For instance, if a tree needs to be replaced and it is not the correct season to plant a tree, an extension may be given until the correct season arrives."
Copperas Cove City Manager Andrea Gardner said the city does not have a business landscape ordinance.
In Harker Heights, Carpenter said city staff will begin researching the types of plants the ordinance could allow as modified replacements, as well as rocks. Officials also will develop a timeline for changing the ordinance and seek business owners' input.
"We need landscaping in Harker Heights, but we also need to work with businesses on a long-term solution," said Carpenter.
Contact Kim Steele at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7567.