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Atlanta tweaks tree protection, floats idea of forming urban forestry division

Tree stump, Piedmont Hospital Atlanta has set a two-year limit on the use of money collected from the cutting of trees to maintain city-owned urban forests. The Tree Trust Fund collects fees for the cutting of trees, such as this one at Piedmont Hospital, in Buckhead. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By David Pendered

Atlanta continues to tinker with its ordinances to protect trees and the vaunted tree canopy. The city this month has partially protected the Tree Trust Fund and started discussing the formation of a forestry division to manage wooded land.

Tree stump, Piedmont Hospital

Atlanta has set a three-year limit on the use of money collected from the cutting of trees to maintain city-owned urban forests. The Tree Trust Fund collects fees assessed for the cutting of trees, such as this one at Piedmont Hospital, in Buckhead. Credit: Kelly Jordan

These efforts represent new steps. They are distinct from the review of Atlanta’s comprehensive Tree Protection Ordinance. The TPO review remains ongoing and, by year-end, city officials have said they intend to present a final draft for public review. By way of context, in December 2018 the city anticipated a July 2019 release date for a final draft TPO.

The Tree Trust Fund is the subject of the city’s latest formal action.

Skeptics view the measure as a partial protection because it sets a time limit – but not a dollar amount – for the use of Tree Trust Fund moneys for clean-up and maintenance.

The Atlanta City Council approved the legislation Aug. 17. The new provision sets a three-year limit on the use of money in the Tree Trust Fund to clean and maintain forested land purchased by the city. It does not limit the amount of Tree Trust Fund dollars that can be spent on maintenance during the three years.

The measure addresses a situation that emerged earlier this year. Atlanta agreed to tap the tree fund for a total of $5.3 million to secure and maintain a 216-acre forested land known as Lake Charlotte. This sum included $625,240 to secure and maintain the property, in addition to $4.7 million to purchase the site. The notion of providing maintenance funding created some dissent.

In particular, concern surrounded a proposal that traveled with the legislation but was not funded – a five-year maintenance plan with a projected price of $2.3 million. The clean-up money was to address a situation to be expected with an urban tract left alone since it was purchased in 1989 for a landfill that wasn’t developed – illegal tire dumps and trash dumps have been created as folks entered through breaches in the chain link fence. Councilmembers who visited the site quipped during an Aug. 11 Community Development meeting that on their next visit they’ll bring trash bags and the means to haul off tires.

Atlanta did not collect funds for these trees cut at the Bobby Jones Golf Course. The city did not protect the trees before swapping the land to the state. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The Tree Trust Fund legislation was introduced by councilmembers J.P. Matzigkeit and Dustin Hillis. The paper states, in part:

  • “[T]he removal of dead, dying or hazardous trees or invasive species that present a significant threat to the health of the trees, and staff or contractors to administer such services. This initial stabilization, clean-up and maintenance period shall not exceed three years from the purchase date of the property.”

This language replaces a provision that states in part:

  • “To the extent that the commissioner identifies the tree trust fund as the source of maintenance funding, any specific allocation of maintenance dollars from the tree trust fund shall be authorized as a separate procurement or expenditure, in a manner consistent with applicable city ordinances.”

A new twist in the conversation is the creation of a city agency to manage the city’s forests. Atlanta City Councilmember Carla Smith said during a discussion of the Tree Trust Fund that Greg Levine, of Trees Atlanta, had floated the idea.

Councilmember Joyce Sheperd supported at least a conversation about Atlanta establishing an urban forestry division. Speaking at the same meeting as Smith, the Aug. 11 meeting of the Community Development and Human Services Committee, Sheperd said:

  • “Other cities have a separate entity under the parks department. The parks department already has so many things. … If you get more and more [forested lands], it’s going to require a whole other load of folks.”
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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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