A wake-up call in effort to strengthen Atlanta’s tree ordinance

By Guest Columnist LINDSAY WILLIAMS BELLASI, who became a tree activist following a clear-cutting incident in her Northwest Atlanta neighborhood

As I drove home one summer night down West Wesley Road, a large dark shadow swooped in front of our car. “Wow!” shrieked my 5- and 6 year-old boys from the backseat. “Did you see that?” It was a huge owl – probably with a wingspan of 6 feet or more. We added it to the animal bingo board game we play, not realizing that some of the bird’s habitat in our neighborhood was about to be obliterated.

Lindsay Williams Bellasi

Lindsay Williams Bellasi

In our neighborhood of Margaret Mitchell, it’s not uncommon to see deer, foxes, owls, snakes, hawks and more – sometimes all in the same day. This is what makes Atlanta special and unique – the lush tree canopy that is home to these beautiful creatures within just miles of a major metropolitan center.

I admit, growing up here, this is something I took for granted and never really thought about. Out-of-town friends always marveled at the lush vegetation, and I just assumed all cities were like ours until I started traveling and lived elsewhere – now I know it’s unique – but also in grave danger of disappearing. My rude awakening from this oblivion was two months ago.

Driving to drop the boys at summer camp early one morning, the three of us witnessed a sight I’ll never forget: A wooded lot, of 2 acres or more, on West Wesley being bulldozed out of the blue. Huge, healthy oak and pine trees crashed to the ground one after another. By the time I picked the kids up that afternoon, every tree was gone. The stretch of forest we passed every day and assumed would always be there was now a huge gaping hole of red clay. It was shocking, devastating and left us all speechless.

In the weeks that followed, the lot became a source of intense discussion around the neighborhood. Every time I drove by, I saw walkers and joggers pause in front of the lot, jaws-to-the-ground, in awe of the situation. Comments on the neighborhood Nextdoor online thread included: “How awful! How could this happen?” “How could someone be allowed to do this!?” “This doesn’t happen in our neighborhood!” “How did we not know about this?” “I never saw permit signs!” Feeling furious yet inspired by the common sentiment, I decided to get some answers.

lindsay williams bellasi, trees

The mature trees that once lined this land in Buckhead were removed to make way for residential development. Credit: Nancy Jo McDaniel

In the weeks that followed, a concerned, former Margaret Mitchell neighbor and photographer captured photos of the lot (which by then had become a huge mud pit causing major run-off issues for neighbors). I contacted our city council representative, who quickly responded and connected me with the city arborist and urban planner. The fast response felt promising, but this feeling rapidly turned to anger, frustration and even guilt with the answers I received.

It turned out, according to city officials, the development was presented at our Neighborhood Planning Unit meeting months before and there were signs posted for a few days regarding the development and the removal of trees. How did I, and others, not know about this or notice the signs (although, admittedly, I wouldn’t have known before then what they were for and what to do to help stop it). After further persistence over email with the city, and help from neighbors familiar with construction laws and procedures, “Stop Work” signs appeared at the lot one day.

As it further turned out, the developer had violated a number of provisions: Surpassing the amount of land grading permitted; failing to take the necessary precautions to prevent run-off into the sewers; failing to post building plans and, according to the city arborist, appearing to have surpassed the number of trees permitted for removal.

Victory! Right? Wrong!

While the red signs and work stoppage felt promising and sent the message to the developer that the neighborhood was now watching and they better be more careful and respectful, they can’t bring back the old trees. Construction resumed a few weeks later.

tree ordinance, locator map

Many of the trees on the southeast corner of West Wesley Road and Margaret Mitchell Drive have been removed to make way for future residential construction. The site is about a mile south of OK Cafe, on the west side of I-75. Credit: Google Earth (March 2018), David Pendered

Then it hit me – the issue isn’t this developer, it’s the city ordinance. After further investigation, I learned the lot was approved for removal of 61 trees, to be replaced by 16. What? That’s crazy! Sixtyone mature trees taken out and 16 saplings planted – and if the builder surpassed this amount, a fine of a few hundred dollars per tree was to be imposed. That’s peanuts for a developer flipping a property of about $900,000 into a site that’s to accommodate two or three multi-million dollar Buckhead homes.

This isn’t an ordinance. It’s just a simple building fee. Why would a developer invest more to preserve and build around old oak trees versus paying a lower fine to knock them down and start from scratch? If the developer’s objective is to make money and doesn’t care about the impact to the wildlife, tree canopy or neighborhood aesthetic, of course the company choose the fine every time! It ain’t rocket science that there’s a problem here, folks.

So now what? The foundation of the houses is now being laid on the barren lots and the uproar among neighbors is dying down – walkers and joggers don’t pause much anymore to stare in horror, and comments have shifted to, “It’s so sad,” and, “It was going to happen sooner or later, I guess”.

I still find myself infuriated at the lack of respect the developer has shown to Mother Nature as well as our neighborhood. Despite the “Stop Work” episode, building plans have yet to be posted on the site as required by law, although the builder did go to extra trouble to post more than 10 “No Trespassing” signs all over the property. I’ve sent multiple follow-up emails to the city requesting transparency of the situation and of the tree report and what the consequences will be to the developer – but to no avail. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against development entirely, but I believe in responsible development that is respectful to the community and to the environment.

tree ordinance, stop work

Atlanta city officials issued a stop work order on the site in question after area residents questions the clear cutting on the site. Credit: Nancy Jo McDaniel

However, I must stop myself from focusing on the developer. I’ve come to realize that the gaping red clay hole and bright orange construction fences Margaret Mitchell residents drive by now must be a wake-up call. With the current economy driving more people to move to intown neighborhoods, this can – and will – happen again in our neighborhood, as it does across the city every day. It’s just a matter of time. It’s a symptom of a much larger problem with our city tree ordinance that must be addressed.

Moving ahead, my energy now shifts to driving awareness of any future potential developments in the neighborhood in order to try to prevent future clear cutting. I’m learning a lot – like, apparently, you’re supposed to call 911 if you’re ever concerned about trees being removed, and neighborhood associations can be the best avenue to bolster the power of collective voices. I’m surely going to make an extra effort to be on the lookout for tree removal/building permit signs and attend NPU meetings to make sure our concerns are heard earlier in the process next time.

Most importantly, I cannot let my own complacency to set in as the dust settles on this lot. Every time our family stops the car to watch the deer near Nancy Creek, I’m reminded how special our “City within a Forest” is. However, we can no longer take it for granted.

We must push to change Atlanta’s tree ordinance to protect our beautiful heritage for the next generation instead of letting builders take the easy way out and bulldoze at will with little or no penalty. This situation has shown me that it will likely take time and a heck of a lot of persistence, but I for one am not giving up easily. Who’s with me?

Note to readers: Lindsay Williams Bellasi is a native Atlantan with a career in consumer insights and marketing/growth strategy.

 

tree ordinance, no trespassing

The developer posted ‘No trespassing’ signs at the site after residents questioned tree removal at the site. Credit: Nancy Jo McDaniel

 

tree ordinance, silt fence

After trees were removed from the site, the developer installed an earthen berm and silt fence to control soil erosion and runoff. Credit: Nancy Jo McDaniel

13 replies
  1. Melanie Bass Pollard says:

    A great article and very encouraging that another Atlantan is motivated to speak out about the abuses of our natural resources. If you haven’t read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, please spend time to get familiarized with his book and at the very least, his message. https://www.ted.com/talks/jared_diamond_on_why_societies_collapse

    This is an extensively researched book on the archeological, societal, economical and environmental impact humans have made on the world, covering centuries of history and fact. Societies that existed for centuries but did not survive and why. A common thread to his examination of societal collapse is tree deforestation.

    One recently published fact: Georgia is in the lead for for deforestation in the US. We are losing our trees at a rate of .37 percent. They will not grow back in our lifetime- if ever- with soil degradation through chemicals, regrading and erosion. It speaks volumes on the direction we are headed which will undoubtedly be difficult and/or unpleasant for future citizens in just a few decades. How are we not seeing what we are doing? To think we can replace 61 healthy mature specimen trees with 16 saplings plopped into destroyed soils that took centuries to reach that quality of health – and safely stand – under current climate changes is uninformed.

    As Ms. Bellasi writes here, we should no longer be complacent on what is happening around us. All throughout the metro area, flood plains are now being permitted and constructed through deforestation, topography changes and increases in impervious surface areas and heights. Wind and water velocity along with habitat displacement present and future impact is not being factored into sustainable application in the zoning, natural resource protection and infrastructure processes. This pattern of development is not going to change until we collectively demand it. One look at untethered development in Houston is a classic example of the high cost of the failure to adapt.

    We can start to make a difference by engaging with our local environmental networks. Learn to understand zoning, ordinances and the power of your voice. Learn the importance of native plants and trees in our ecosystem. Learn how our mycorrhizae, invertebrates, pollinators, aquatic and terrestrial life forms are all connected to our trees, a keystone species. The native trees and plants, like people, are communities. Learn how significant our SE natural landscapes are to the country- and the world – and why we must protect them now.Report

    Reply
  2. Brad Jones says:

    I totally agree the ordinance needs revising. I also agree that to clearcut 2 acres for a typical Buckhead single family residence is ridiculous, because if you are trying to fit a family of four on two acres, you usually have the opportunity to design a house around trees. This is how it was done in Buckhead from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. I assume this project replaced a modest mid-century ranch, which for families in the 1950’s was the epitome of high style. However, it is much harder to build today’s three or four single occupant vehicle garage, complete with driveways, along with 3,000 SF (or more? I don’t know what’s typical in West Buckhead these days) of living space and also meet today’s stormwater, erosion control, and setback requirements without having to remove mature trees. Unless spending top dollar on good design, where architects, landscape architects, arborists and civil engineers actually work together to design with nature, Atlanta will continue to see this lowest-common denominator design happen on these “mansion” lots as it is the cheapest way for developers to get something in the ground and still get top dollar.

    A lack of understanding above is to consider what is truly salvageable when it comes to trees and development. Atlanta’s topography is far too steep to allow both tree save areas and reasonable buildable areas. The amount of disturbance native trees can take is extremely small. If even 15% of a tree’s root zone is compromised the trees will die. The “Buildable area” of a development site has to be considered in the ordinance. Otherwise, you are asking designers and developers to do the impossible. If we’re going to require the impossible, then the added cost of all this will be burdened by homebuyers. Only by adding density, transit options and zoning flexibility will there be an option to also save trees. Until the prevalence of the automobile, Atlanta was on pace to be a higher-density city like Philadelphia or Baltimore. But auto-oriented zoning from the 1940s on left Atlanta as an extremely low-density city, and we face this fact daily.

    Remember that Atlanta was not always as forested as it is now. Buckhead was an exception, where wooded areas called to developers prior to the 1920’s. But at the turn of the 20th century, Atlanta was very small, surrounded by clear cut pastures and farms for as far as could be seen. Atlanta’s “City in a Forest” is true, but only if you think of it in terms of the 1950s onward. The City was founded in a forest, and that forest was quickly cleared for cotton production. Our trees are a 20th century phenomenon of low-density suburban development. The pockets of old growth are rare, and probably mainly found in Buckhead.

    See for yourself: https://www.historicaerials.com/viewerReport

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  3. Napiera says:

    Well said my sentiment exactly and it’s everywhere in Atlanta when bears coyotes owls start showing up it is nature crying that we creating an imbalance I’m not sure what can be done I’m not even a Georgia native I’m from Chicago and slowly but surely Atlanta is turning into a big city and will soon lose all of the beauty that make this part of Georgia so wonderfulReport

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  4. S Cox says:

    Developers and the City have always been in collusion and residents’ horror is always post-tree removal. This will continue and continue because it is impossible to get city employees to be advocates for trees.. Until there is a strong resident-driven political requirement for a revamped process – from the planning stage, communications, waiting periods, open public hearings with advance notice, and on and on – say goodbye to more green space. Tears and regrets afterwards carry no weight and do nothing to maintain a single tree. And no one even bothers to feel badly unless the loss is in their backyard.Report

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  5. Leslie Nelson Inman says:

    2018 has been a terrible year for trees in Atlanta. If there’s a tree-filled lot with a “For Sale” sign, then you can count on another clear cutting. It’s terrible in our surrounding areas like Duluth where I teach English. Paving and parking lots are covering the land where trees once stood.
    A report from the U.S. Forest Service shows Georgia is leading the nation in tree loss.
    The study examined Google Earth images over a five year period, from 2009 to 2014. It found Georgia lost an average of 18,000 acres of urban tree cover per year — more than any other state.
    A real tragedy, we’re building the dystopia that all the kids are reading about in teen novels.Report

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  6. Melanie Bass Pollard says:

    Thank you Leslie, for commenting here. Your work to shed knowledge on the decline and threat to our pollinators is reaching people across the country. We are fortunate to have you in our camp. What could eventually change things would be a combination of citizen advocacy, education and technology combined with an impassioned law firm that can illustrate – and prove- the eventual effects of tree deforestation and high impact destruction to the soils on surrounding properties. In other words, if you permit the cutting of so many trees on a lot, you are permitting the increased likelihood of failure of the surrounding trees on other private properties and the wind and stormwater velocities of change that will occur. It’s predictable and evident in our city now if we stop and look. Why are so many trees dying in Oakland Cemetery? How far is Grant Park from this site? How did the massive denuding of Atlanta’s oldest historic park impact trees, stormwater and wind velocities in the area? Cause/effect. How many trees fell during Irma that were loaded with English Ivy or impacted by unmitigated stormwater? How many trees have fallen since Peachtree Hills park was denuded? I have witnessed at least 5 specimen trees alone fall on our street since the clearcutting for the “Buckhead Preserve” on once “Shady Valley”.

    Aside from tree valuation in the zoning and value assessment codification processes, what is also missing is a SOIL ordinance. I’ve seen Brookhaven permit up to an additional 10 feet of soil on multiple private lots which promptly created high velocity stormwater and “suffocation” of surrounding tree root systems. Not one but two trees collapsed on the next door house only a few months later. The unsuspecting owner’s trees were compromised by the city’s permit process.

    Most experienced and/or educated ecologists understand the notion of a $5 hole for a $1 plant. You cannot just pop the plant or grass sod into the soil and expect it to grow. It will look good for a year maybe but then sink into early decline. One of the many reasons for Georgia’s rich plant diversity and lucky-for-us– rich flora and fauna diversity – is the unique bedrock beneath us that supports the living soil and life above. Understand the rock and the soil and you can understand better the trees and plants above it. When I see the bull dozers and bob cats terrorizing the soils, the amazing plant systems holding the rich history in their depths, I know that the ecosystem of this site will have to heal for a very long time. And healing the soil takes decades, sometimes centuries. Add to that we only have 3-4 inches of top soil that our trees must seek refuge in, sometimes for miles, dependent on the community of root systems to hold to during storms, and it’s understandable when your neighbor clear cuts using their “property rights” and the placebo “tree ordinance” that everyone will pay. In the long run.Report

    Reply
  7. Jennifer McLeod says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. And it’s important to emphasize that just complaining isn’t enough. We MUST take action – individually and as a group – to make our representatives author and sponsor legislation to protect our trees – from themselves and the dollar signs in their eyes.Report

    Reply
  8. DanaBlankenhorn (@danablankenhorn) says:

    Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, urban residents live in an ecosystem, one we’re responsible for.

    We’re being overrun by prey species that are good at hiding, like rats, and those we have deemed cute, like deer. We’re making no effort to make sense of any of it, to consider our responsibility for creating a balance in all this nature. Instead we set rat traps that kill cats, we murder coyote and save rats, we let the deer (and the feral hogs) run rampant.

    This needs to change. How? I don’t know. We need to study our ecosystem, and then set policies that create a natural balance.Report

    Reply
  9. Katharine Montgomery says:

    Great article. In addition to advocating for changes to the tree ordinance to save more trees from removal, there needs to be better enforcement of tree protection for the trees that are left standing on a property that is redeveloped. The diameter of the tree protection fencing around the tree is critical to prevent compaction of the soil around the tree roots. For example – the tree protection fencing is far too narrow around the remaining trees along Northside Drive at Bobby Jones Golf Course. The ground above the roots of some of those trees has been exposed to grading and compaction for months. Time will tell how many of those trees survive.Report

    Reply
  10. Alison Ross says:

    This rampant development is happening all over the city, as you all know, and jeopardizes wildlife, our own health, aesthetics, and affordable housing – all at once. It’s unconscionable.

    And I agree that it’s the tree ordinance that needs to be overhauled. It’s an uphill battle, but a group of us are trying to do that and we all need to join forces.Report

    Reply
  11. Victoria says:

    Lindsay, thanks for your critique and the timeliness of this post. We’re definitely losing far too many trees in residential neighborhoods, 1 lot at a time. Revising and strengthening all of our city and county tree ordinances would be ideal, but there are other ways to approach saving trees during development.

    Here in unincorporated Dekalb county, I’ve worked with neighbors to strengthen our own Scottdale Overlay District code so that we’re aware of development coming into the area, which means we’re able to challenge every developer and hold them to code regulations like setbacks, ROWs, encroachment on critical root zones, and limiting impervious surfaces. Saving trees is not impossible and since we’re losing more to residential development than anything else, an important step is to work with your local Planning department on zoning and local code.

    The means to go about this is relatively simple; request from Planning staff that all pre-application sketch plats to be emailed to the leadership of your civic alliance or NPU for review.

    In our case another neighbor and I went to the Director of Planning and his senior staff back in 2010 and requested to be informed. In our overlay district code, some smart person had thought to include back when it was enacted in 2008, a provision for the Scottdale Community Alliance to be notified of pre-applications via email, 10 days before the initial public hearing. Since that civic alliance was not involved in our neighborhood until just recently, we worked to get the same provision extended to our Avondale-Rockbridge Civic Alliance, of which I’m co-chair. That amendment to the code was just approved yesterday by our Board of Commissioners. We reached out over the past year to our local commissioners and Planning staff for help, and through many meetings, they all came through for us. Rewriting code takes time, but it’s well worth hanging in there.

    I urge all NPU’s to either request similar notifications to be emailed to their leadership, and to have the notification written into the code with the City of Atlanta. Just scanning City of Atlanta’s municode shows that Candler Park already has notification written into the code. It may be because they’re designated as a Special Public Interest District, as are Inman Park and other historic areas. The language states: “No building permit shall be issued by the bureau of buildings within the SPI-7 Candler Park District without the prior approval and issuance of a certificate of compliance from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission (AUDC). AUDC shall notify NPU-N of any variance application, and shall allow NPU-N a maximum of 45 days from the mailing date of such application to NPU-N, so that NPU-N may provide AUDC with written comments on such application.”

    Do all NPUs have this kind of language in the city code? Does this include any land disturbance for development? Does all leadership of each NPU share the variance or building applications with their members? It would be worthwhile to find out those answers.

    Review the code for your NPU or area. Here in Dekalb, we have many overlay infill districts that don’t have specifics like lot width or setbacks written into their code, they revert to county base zoning code that may not be relevant or strong enough to protect the integrity (and trees) of the often older neighborhoods. My advice is for all of the overlay districts and NPUs to do what we’ve done here in our Scottdale Overlay District. Review all the code to see how it could be revised and strengthened. It does mean becoming more knowledgeable about zoning, but if you want to preserve old-growth forest, this is one step that can work, despite having weak and unenforced tree ordinances. We also have a wonderful county arborist who goes out of his way to offer advice and help, whenever we ask.

    Being alerted to what is coming up in the future in the way of development has really helped us stay on top of the building that continues in our area. It does require community monitoring once development occurs, because you all know about staff reductions, which includes code enforcement and inspections. But just last night at a BOC hearing, neighbors who cited their overlay district’s code, were able to save a vacant “unbuildable” lot in Sagamore Hills from being developed by an out of state investor, along with protecting a +200 year old specimen white oak downhill that would have been damaged from grading of the lot. The BOC unanimously denied the applicant’s request to rezone the lot.Report

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  12. Victoria says:

    One more important thing I forgot to add – Dekalb requires that the sketch plat have a tree save plan attached, an arborist must have surveyed the lot to identify specimens. Not sure if City of Atl requires that.Report

    Reply
  13. John Hitchins says:

    If I had the money to build that kind of hoe, I would want the luxury of beautiful, mature trees surrounding my landscape. I understand why developers do it, but don’t understand why a homebuilder would want it.Report

    Reply

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