Trees in Peachtree Hills on chopping block while developer gets easement through park

By Maria Saporta

First in a multi-part series about Atlanta’s precious tree canopy

Hundreds and hundreds of trees will be cut down in the Peachtree Hills community as a result of two developments currently being proposed.

Ashton Woods – an ironic name for the developer – is planning to clear cut a 4-acre parcel next to Peachtree Hills Park ­– removing a total of 148 trees.

Peachtree Hills

A look at the trees that will be cut down as part of the easement through the park (Photo: Peachtree Hills)

Across Peachtree Hills Avenue, Isakson Living will be developing a residential community on 20 acres of land that used to house the a modern-style Peachtree Hills Apartments, which were built in 1938 and were demolished in 2008.

The property has been vacant – with the exception of the grand trees that have shaded the area for decades.

Brian Thomas, vice president of construction of Isakson Living, wrote in an email that “the existing tree canopy has been and will continue to be a priority for our project….”

Isakson Living has been working the community to establish a 3-acre conservation area along the eastern edge of its property.

The Isakson Living property has a total of 735 trees, not including those that have been designated as dead, dying or hazardous. It will be saving 251 of those trees, but about two-thirds of the trees will be cut down.

When Isakson had first acquired the property, and tore down the old apartments, it initially planned to save about 50 percent of the tree canopy. But now there’s a new site plan, which will remove more than 480 trees.

Thomas said Isakson Living will be replanting 530 new trees, and there will be a total of 782 trees on the site But he acknowledged that the total caliper inches of trees (the size of the trunks) would only be 43 percent of the current quantity.

Peachtree Hills

The trees that will be cut down as the pipe approaches the creek (Photo: Peachtree Hills)

Interestingly enough, the Peachtree Hills Apartments were able to be nestled within the trees that are currently there. It also had more residences than the number proposed by Isakson Living, which covers a larger footprint on the site.

In addition to the loss of trees, Ashton Woods also is seeking an easement to place a 48-inch storm sewer from its property through the Peachtree Hills Park and drain in the creek.

Laura Dobson, a neighborhood resident, believes it is a first for a developer to get an easement to go through parkland, and she is worried it will create a precedent to use the city’s parks for private development.

Dobson and other neighborhood residents believe there needs to be more due diligence on possible options to avoid using park land, including placing the pipe under Peachtree Hills Avenue. They also believe the drainage pipe could be a danger to children, and they are concerned about the environmental impact the discharge could have on the downstream creek bank.

Councilmember Howard Shook has proposed a couple of amendments to be part of the easement.The amendments included a bank restoration plan and some kind of screen to prevent children from climbing into the drain.

Shook also said Ashton Woods has agreed to make a $30,000 gift to Peachtree Hills Park if it can get an easement through the park. Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, said his organization is the fiscal agent for Friends of Peachtree Hills, and it is serving as the conduit for the funds to be invested in the park. Halicki said Park Pride would not directly benefit from the Ashton Woods grant.

At its meeting on May 1, the Atlanta City Council approved the easement in a 12 to 2 vote, despite a plea from community members for more due diligence on the transaction. Council members Felicia Moore and Michael Julian Bond voted against the easement.

“Nobody is enthusiastic about going through park land,” Shook said.

But Dobson and other neighborhood residents were disappoint that there wasn’t more due diligence on possible options to avoid using park land, including placing the pipe under Peachtree Hills Avenue.

Peachtree Hills

This image shows how the Peachtree Hill Apartments fit in between the woods on the site (Aerial photo: Peachtree Hills)

“This is important because a park easement like this … for private developer purposes only … has never been done in the City of Atlanta,” wrote resident Pat Reynolds in an email to residents. “If City Council approves this request, it will be used as precedent by every other developer who wants an easement through ANY city park.”

Kathleen Moriarty, zoning chair of the Peachtree Hills Civic Association, said Ashton Woods would need to cut down another nine trees to get the easement.

“Our support is contingent on the amendments being attached,” Moriarty said. The association found out that most residents did not support the pipe being built in the roadway and disrupting road access.

Mike Busher, a senior vice president with Ashton Woods, did not return a phone call or emails to comment on the project.

Moriarty does feel there’s a failure on many levels when it comes to trees. The Tree Conservation Commission “doesn’t ask people to change their plans” to save trees.

She also is concerned that the community cares more about the park land than does the city. So the community has tried to squeeze as much as it could from Ashton Woods. “If you are going to come through our park, it’s not going to be cheap, she said.

As for all the trees that are being proposed to be cut down, it appears there’s little that can be done if a developer is willing to pay the fines and/or plant new trees.

Peachtree Hills

A look at how the easement would enter park land (Photo: Peachtree Hills)

“Nobody likes it when these trees are cut down,” Shook said, adding another bit of irony. “Some of these trees have to be cut down because of the BeltLine overlay plan.”

The BeltLine plan calls for wider sidewalks, which would mean cutting down the street trees, which Moriarty had helped plant years ago.

As for the plan by Ashton Woods’ to clear cut its site, Shook said: “I wish they had come up with a more context-sensitive plan.”

Across the street, Kevin Isakson, vice president of sales and marketing for Isakson Living, said the “tree canopy is of benefit to us.” And while it is working with Trees Atlanta, the community and the City of Atlanta, Isakson Living is still planning to cut down about 500 trees.

“Again, we feel that preserving and enhancing (through re-planting of both quantity and quality of species), in coordination with the neighborhood, Trees Atlanta, City of Atlanta, and Chattahoochee Nature Center, and our consultants, we have been, and continue to be good stewards of the Atlanta Tree Canopy,” Thomas wrote in an email.  “We recognize and agree that the Special Canopy that we have in this City is important for not only our development, but the community as well.”

Then let’s do better. Let’s save our treasured tree canopy.

Next week: Atlanta’s Old Growth Forests as see through Joan Maloof, an author and founder of the Old Growth Forest Network.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

11 replies
  1. V. Thaxton says:

    There has got to be a comment. We can not just continue the status quo. We have climate change, global warming and we just continue like things are like they were in the 50’s. We plan to put up a statue honoring a native American in soon to be Mim’s or Cook park. And the civil rights leaders that followed. But we have to do more than that. We have to recognize what they recognized; our inter connectedness with the planet, with the trees, with each other. Those tree provide oxygen. They take in carbon dioxide; they literally help us heal; they are therapeutic; Muir when he was not well; where did he go ? To the forest; Teddy Roosevelt did the same.

    To wipe out 500 trees that are 50, 75, maybe 100 years old and the ancient soil they grow in ; that decision can not be made lightly. You can not just replace a resource like that, a wise teacher told me.

    We have to find an alternative. Atlanta can do better. We can learn better and we can do better.Report

    Reply
  2. Jim Abbot says:

    Maria, thank your for this and I look forward to the entire series! In addition to everything you say here, I’ll add that we really need to consider also CUMULATIVE impacts on our tree canopy. There are reportedly 33 large projects in the offing in Buckhead, according to Curbed Atlanta (https://atlanta.curbed.com/maps/buckhead-atlanta-construction-projects-towers-development). The great challenge we face, in my view, is what’s been called the tyranny of small decisions.

    Not reassuring on this score is what the city attorney is supposed to have said about the now-approved (as of yesterday) grant to Ashton Woods of an easement across Peachtree Hills Park: to wit, this project will not set a precedent “because each case is reviewed individually.” Reviewed individually in the context of what overall, systematic, and systemic plan? Reviewed according to what citywide criteria?

    Look, Atlanta is presently 48% urban tree cover. Before these two developers start clearing their sites and pouring concrete, Peachtree Hills can boast 59% urban tree cover and (note well!) only 25% non-vegetation. By contrast, my famously green neighborhood of Inman Park is just 31% urban tree canopy, and 43% is basically non-plantable (buildings, parking lots, streets, bike/pedestrian path, etc.)

    Can’t everyone see that no matter HOW hard we work in Inman Park to plant new trees and replenish our tree canopy, when you convert mostly vegetated land elsewhere to roof shingles and concrete, our city overall is going to fall farther and farther behind? If your thought is, “Well, Peachtree Hills can afford to lose some trees, since there’ll be plenty left, and we’ll replant some of them,” you’ve got the wrong frame. What you should be thinking is, “What’s the overall vision?”

    When I can no longer get a shovel in the ground, then that land is lost for a generation, when it comes to the environmental services provided by trees and other plants.

    Finally, as an aside: for my part, it should basically be illegal to clearcut any property, even if the developer is paying into the city’s recompense fund and replanting trees elsewhere. It has important symbolic value for the City in a Forest: if a developer cannot figure out a way to adjust his site plan to save even one existing tree, then he shouldn’t be allowed to do business in the City of Atlanta. Full stop.Report

    Reply
  3. Melanie Pollard says:

    Jim,

    I could not agree more. What Atlanta needs, what the metro area needs, is a movement of ALL environmental organizations to come to the table and figure this out. Including those that are funded by City of Atlanta. Including those that will benefit from park tree destruction like Park Pride. Bring municipality commissioners from every area to the table. While many can’t operate against their 501C3 status, they can still ADVISE. They can still educate on the process and help inform. We are discussing this in the background with the The Tree Next Door (website) and Atlanta Protects Trees (Facebook). We invite the Sierra Club and others to join this discussion. They can advocate without being compromised by tax dollars.

    If everybody does not start to TALK now. If everybody does not start to ACT now, everybody is going to lose what is most uniquely precious in Atlanta. And if Atlanta loses, all of the metro area loses. Atlanta is continuing to lose 50-100 acres a day in the metro area. We have lost at least that much in Pine Hills over the last 20 years where stormwater, highway noise, and traffic plague our community. Charlotte, NC will be carrying the “Most Canopied Urban City in the Country” torch since they are neck to neck with us. And we will have handed it to them.

    Our Old Growth canopy was recently discussed at an EcoAddendum presentation in Emory where Planning Commissioner, Tim Keane, spoke on the mysterious “City Plan’ that City of Atlanta has underway. However, what type of plan will it be, is anyone’s guess, if there is no significant canopy left to with or connect with throughout the spartan greenspaces left. Maria Saporta graciously moderated an ECOA panel afterwards to discuss what is wrong. Many in the audience were pretty outspoken about this article’s topic and other loses going on around the metro area and outside of it. There were 300+ people there all anxious to know what they could do. Many areas throughout the metro area were inducted into the Old Growth Forest Network and it was about time, thanks to Kathryn Kolb’s work. But what next?

    I understand Peachtree Park was losing more than 500 trees – 800 – to Johnny Isakson’s development company, Isakson Living. Regardless, it will soon reach a point where 10 trees will be fought over like in San Francisco, an urban city with the LOWEST canopy in the nation and where you wait 3 years to cut a tree. Do we have to wait to reach that point? Can we not have a moratorium on all variances and easement breaks in the dam of community protection so Keane’s plan will have something to work with? Mayor John Ernst in Brookhaven did it one for 6 months in Brookhaven will hopefully meet with some success after a record of 95% variance approvals left the traffic and stormwater consequences of today. But in a city of 50,000, few show up for the trees. I’ve been there many times where the room had only 2 dozen folks there for various reasons and the trees were last on the agenda at 9pm. Government is run by those who show up, and there usually isn’t enough there to persuade the “elected officials” – and the developers are always there.

    I can tell you that Peachtree Hills in Buckhead is not filled with just the “haves” which many may tend to assume about Buckhead. There are plenty of “have-nots”. Several of us were there at City Hall yesterday in our 20+ year old cars left at the Marta Station. All of us that were there love the trees, bird songs and natural greenspaces that are spread throughout Atlanta and there not just for human enjoyment but a wildlife food source as well. Trees and their understory plants, first on the trophic level to synthesize the sun’s energy, provide the key food source that all life forms on this planet depend upon. Our house in one of the houses in Pine Hills that still proudly maintaining our specimen canopy of White Oaks, Hickory, Beech, Magnolia, Native Dogwood and Holly in an original ranch-style home with pileated woodpeckers, brown thrashers and house wrens nesting here this spring- a lovely scene to watch from our many windows. I can’t say the same for the majority of 1M+ homes on my street that were denuded and replaced with 3X homes that regularly dump their stormwater into the street for all to pay for and whose trees are slowing dying from the heavily impacted roots systems and lost partners that held them together through intense rain and wind.

    Peachtree Hills will most likely continue losing specimen trees, especially in the nearby homes to the park and development. Those roots systems to be destroyed will likely contain the root systems, in the 3-4 inches of top soil that have, of other neighboring trees. The reality of this bleak picture for our parks is that IF we don’t care about ALL of our parks, for each other, then we might as well, like so many do, instead of being there at the NPU meetings which are now compromised by special interest members, stay at home and play Russian Roulette with our parks, our trees, and our quality of life here in this city.Report

    Reply
    • Jim Abbot says:

      Melanie, thank you for replying to and greatly expanding upon my earlier comment. I am sorry to have missed my friend Kathryn’s old growth presentation, not least because Tim Keane attended and spoke. Here’s what I’d like to say in reply to your reply: the existing, well-known and less well-known environmental organizations in Atlanta (both local outfits and those affiliated with the brand-name national networks) have a role to play in all of this. But the overall character, the genuine distinctiveness, and the core strength of this city is its residential neighborhoods. I don’t think of that as an opinion but as a fact. So we cannot and should not look to the environmental groups. We shouldn’t expect people who work on all sorts of environmental issues every week, who don’t have firsthand knowledge of our neighborhoods, who (as you imply) have certain built-in constraints on what they can reasonably say and do to challenge the status quo — we can’t expect them to lead. Nor, I would suggest, do we want them to.

      If Peachtree Hills wants to partner with Inman Park to get the ball rolling, maybe we could organize an all-city Neighborhood Summit on Atlanta’s Urban Tree Canopy. We could raise the visibility of this problem. We could demand some answers from people like Keane and the City Council. We could forge new ties that could lead to other productive collaborations moving forward. We could set an example for how Atlanta should approach sustainability issues in an inclusive way that moves past the old-style politics of this city. Contact me at https://inmanparktrees.com/ if you’re interested and once you’ve talked to your peeps.Report

      Reply
  4. Anthony Smith says:

    Please ask about the impact the new golf course and tennis courts construction will have on the existing tree canopy at Bobby Jones Golf Course, just downstream from the Peachtree Hills neighborhood. The trees have been surveyed, and the overlay of the new course should allow the engineers to calculate the trees which will be lost. Construction is supposed to start in November on the 144 acres, now owned by the State but leased for 50 years to the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation, who controls the construction and plans.Report

    Reply
    • Melanie Pollard says:

      David,

      I thought the same thing. Peachtree Hills will be losing 10% of their canopy within a short period of time. On top of the magnificent 500 year old Magnolia and forest in front of Piedmont Hospital. History will not look favorably back on what has happened to the city during this period of the utter demolish of Atlanta’s high-value Trees and Forests and disregard of community, parks and Atlanta’s collapse of their older growth forests. 77-80% of canopy in City of Atlanta exists on residential with only 2.5% protected by the Tree Ordinance. The after effects will be felt for decades since there are so many old trees sprinkled throughout the community. Trees take a long time to die. And they get blamed when they fail under circumstances they did not create.

      All trees are connected in different ways beneath the ground. Suzanne Simard’s, a professor of forest ecology who teaches at the University of British Columbia, Ted Talk explained it quite well where she describes the complex systems of trees. And you can understand the effects this will have on the insects, pollinators, and wildlife that shares space there and whose habitats will be completely removed by reading Doug Talamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home.

      There were two animal control trucks at one house in my neighborhood this week which is 6 feet from the property line where 20 foot piles of debris and dirt on the lot next door where the developer, Rockhaven, denuded the oldest home in our Pine Hills neighborhood with its trees. Rockhaven was the developer that clearcut 8.5 acres in 2015 at North Druid/Roxboro which ended in a lawsuit. But they’re still here. All manner of wildlife will be devastated and homeless in Peachtree Hills with the winds, stormwater, and many forms of pollution invited in. More beautiful, private property trees will collapse to this aberration. I am speaking from my experience of living in Pine Hills over the last 20 years. You can see the future of Peachtree Hills at the edge of Shady Valley and Buford Highway. Take a look at what the COA permitted Pulte Homes to do at Peachtree Creek there. A large sand bar has formed from the erosion. They intentionally removed protected borderline trees, paid the fine and kept going. The neighborhood is constantly having to clear the Creek out since the velocity and volume of water has increased in storms and carries with it much larger, deeper debris. We have to manually keep our street drains and culverts cleared out due to water velocity – a direct result from development, tree loss and lack of infrastructure. Can we not have a 3 strikes and your out rule that truly penalizes a developer for repeated infractions? That’s not hard.

      More tree loss will be in store and the community will pay a deep price for what has been permitted. The city and entire metro area will pay a deep price for the compromise of our parks that the commissioners granted permission to. It is, thankfully, a voting year. You can see how the votes were cast at The Tree Next Door and Atlanta Protects Trees. Something desperately needs to be done.Report

      Reply
  5. David Kirby says:

    This is horrifying. First they cut down those beautiful trees in front of the hospital on Peachtree, and now this? Utterly horrifying.Report

    Reply

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