Atlanta’s tree ordinance a sore spot among residents as city eyes a new code in July

By David Pendered

Atlanta’s aged tree ordinance of 2001 looks so good that some folks say they’d be happy if the city would enforce it – until it can be updated. Meanwhile, the city says it’s on track to update the existing tree ordinance in July.

margaret mitchell, tree cutting

Residents of the Margaret Mitchell neighborhood, in northwest Atlanta, have complained that improper tree removal for the planned construction of three houses has caused nothing but trouble. Credit: Nancy Jo McDaniel

The board of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods voted unanimously at its Jan. 10 meeting to ask BCN’s full membership to support a pointed resolution about the existing tree ordinance. The organization represents some 80,000 residents, and some said they’re weary of seeing trees cut on private property with what they perceive as little oversight from the city.

The resolution calls for:

  • The city to increase the transparency surrounding the current effort to revise the tree ordinance;
  • The Arborist Division, in the Department of City Planning, and the Department of Parks and Recreation to comply with a host of existing tree protection regulations.

“The resolution says the law of the city should be followed,” Mary Norwood, BCN’s chair, said in regards to the second measure. Norwood became BCN’s chair this year, after serving as a citywide member of the Atlanta City Council and running twice for mayor.

In addition to BCN’s effort, the non-profit organization City in the Forest is advocating a position that calls for putting tree preservation at the beginning of the development process. The current workflow calls for the arborist review of a development proposal to occur near the end of the city’s review, when it’s difficult for an arborist to affect a development plan, according to the organization.

City in the Forest is participating in the city’s review of the tree ordinance. The organization has a four-point suggestion:

tree ordinance, candler park

Atlanta’s next tree ordinance should provide greater protection for existing trees in the city, rather than providing recompense for the removal of trees. This tree grows in the Candler Park neighborhood. Credit: Kelly Jordan

  • Plan for trees first;
  • Save the best trees;
  • Reduce grading and impervious surface;
  • Effective enforcement.

A situation that’s attracting local attention is unrelated to either of these efforts. This one involves a construction site in the Margaret Mitchell neighborhood, located about a mile south of the OK Café, on the west side of I-75.

A developer is removing trees in preparation for the planned construction of three houses, as reported in a guest column that appeared Sept. 23 in

The current situation involves reports by residents that the developer hit a water main the afternoon of Jan. 11. A work crew was in the process of removing roots of a tree that shouldn’t have been cut down, but had been damaged by a sidewalk that shouldn’t have been built, residents said. About 150 houses lost water pressure for about eight hours, residents said.

Atlanta has struggled to update its tree ordinance.

The last significant revision of the tree ordinance was in 2001. To put that era into perspective, 2001 was the year the Procenium office tower opened at 1170 Peachtree St., just south of the High Museum in Midtown. It was the year a decade-long cycle of business expansion ended with a recession fueled by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The 2001 ordinance was to have been updated in 2014. The effort was ditched after developers and residents said they wanted more input.

In 2017, the Atlanta City Council provided $1.2 million to update the ordinance. That money evidently is helping to pay for the current review.

tree ordinance, bobby jones golf course

No Atlanta tree ordinance could have halted the cutting of trees at the state-owned Bobby Jones Golf Course. But the cutting galvanized tree advocates to protect the trees they can protect. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The tree ordinance review is being conducted in the context of the city’s first ever Urban Ecology Framework study. The purpose of the study is to:

  • “[I]dentify what natural features are unique to the City of Atlanta, how ecosystems or habitats can be restored, and which policies promote development aligned with those features and systems. This inventory will be used to define a better future condition for the natural environment, including high-level recommendations about future green spaces, green connections, and green policies.”

Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane addressed the study at the Dec. 11, 2018 meeting of the council’s Community Development and Human Services Committee. Keane said the city would be in a position to turn to the tree ordinance review after the final framework committee meeting on Dec. 12.

In response to a question from committee Chairperson Natalyn Archibong about the city’s involvement in the framework study, Keane said the departments of watershed, parks and recreation, and planning are involved.

The committee’s report observes that the administration expects to complete the new tree ordinance in March, with the update slated to occur in July. Some members expect that timeline envisions a vote by the council occurring in July. They said that part of the process hasn’t been clarified.


tree ordinance, skyline view

Atlanta’s tree canopy contributes as much to Atlanta’s skyline as the city’s vaunted skyscrapers. Credit: Kelly Jordan

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. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

8 replies
  1. Lindsay says:

    Great article on a critically important topic for our city right now.

    For those concerned, I urge you to:

    1. Sign this petition which will be delivered to city council to support these ordinance amendments

    2. Email your city council representative voicing your concerns and support of these amendments

    3.Visit to learn more and contact the org to get involved if you’re interested

    For more info on the Margaret Mitchell development see:

  2. AR says:

    A new tree ordinance that is pragmatic and enforceable should dramatically curtail the loss of trees in our beloved city in the forest. We should all be indebted to City in the Forest and the Tree Next Door for leading the way.Report

  3. Wayne Shannon says:

    Can’t see the Urban Forest, for the Words

    This is all very important dialogue for community stakeholders to be a part of.

    In framing the policy discussion, it is important to frame the “forest” within the urban context. This is an urban forest we are addressing. Urban forests have trade-offs. The 4 point plan that City in a Forest puts forth shed light on those trade-offs:

    1.Plan for trees first

    2.Save the best trees

    3.Reduce grading and imperious service

    4.Effective enforcement.

    The group “The Tree Next Door”, of Atlanta, has also pointed out several weaknesses in the current enforcement of Atlanta’s existing tree ordinance. Enforcement during construction is currently their primary concern.

    As an active practitioner of urban tree care and consulting, my practice includes seeing multiple sides of this paradoxical paradigm (and there are more than 2 sides).

    It is important for the community to have a sounding board to present their ideas upon, for consideration. Digital media allows us an advantage over the 2001 code revisement.

    The urban forest is a dynamic entity, and to govern such a resilient resource, a dynamic and modifiable policy must be deployed. This allows for a reduction of future modification transaction costs. Changes to the ordinance should happen frequently, on intervals, and according to environmental, economic, and social demands. Politics seems to have led to the 18 year default path of non-revisement.

    A new ordinance should embody a common language that is free of legalese. That would reduce the ordinance length by at least 50%, for quicker first-time reader interpretation. After-all, the ordinance is meant for the public good. What good is it if the public inquiry gets lost in the words, and can’t see the forest (literally) as a result?

    Wayne Shannon

  4. atlantacanopy says:

    Impervious surfaces are mainly things such as pavement, sidewalks, driveways and parking lots, that are covered by impenetrable materials such as asphalt, concrete, brick, stone—and rooftops. Soils compacted by urban development and most grass lawns are also highly impervious.Report

  5. meredith1203 says:

    I agree that we absolutely need a new tree ordinance so we don’t lose our canopy, which is what makes our city so unique. The current ordinance allows developers to cut down whatever trees they want and pay a relatively small fee for doing so. We need a tree ordinance that identifies our most valuable trees, requires that they be protected (where there’s a will, there’s a way), and limits the footprint of new developments so we can minimize flooding, air pollution, gentrification, and damage to our environment. We depend on the trees and our natural environment; when we harm them, we harm ourselves and the larger community. Only a few profit when this happens, but we all pay.Report

  6. Matthew Ward says:

    I believe some immediate relief can be gained by making tree contractors accountable for taking down trees without a permit. If you see a tree being taken down on a weekend its more than likely that it is not permitted.Report

  7. Stephen Edwards says:

    Our trees are what sets us apart from other major US cities. We need a big tree planting campaign also, perhaps matching NYC’s one million that have been planted in the last decade. They cool, they clean the air, they soak up carbon emissions. Also we need billboards all over pleading for people to stop littering & picking up large pieces whenever you walk past them. This is one litter-covered town.Report


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