Atlanta’s trees are more vulnerable when the city’s arborists aren’t out in the field
By Maria Saporta
When Wendy Kirkpatrick bought her Ansley Park house in 2017, she was drawn to community because of its history, its tree canopy and its quality of life.
“I just fell in love with this neighborhood,” Kirkpatrick said. “I feel so lucky to live here. It never occurred to me that right next door and all around, there would be plans to tear down the houses and cut down most of the trees.”
Now Kirkpatrick is in an all-out battle to try to save the very qualities that attracted her to the neighborhood.
The issue has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-March, the city’s planning department halted all of its inspectors – including its arborists – from going out to the field to analyze proposed plans by developers.
Instead, arborists have relied on photographs and videos presented by developers, who will state that trees are dead, dying or hazardous (DDH) so they can cut them down and not have to pay any recompense to the city.
Numerous advocates for trees are saying that the suspension of field visits has led to a loss in the protection of trees.
In the period between April to June 2020 (when City Hall was closed due to the pandemic), 98.3 percent of all DDH applications were approved – significantly higher than the average 80 percent over the past several years.
Kirkpatrick’s situation is only one of many throughout the city where tree advocates believe developers have been taking advantage of the situation to get approval to cut down trees without having arborists inspect the plans in person.
Chet Tisdale, a retired environmental attorney who serves on the Tree Conservation Commission, said the lack of field visits has made it harder for the board to do its work.
“It’s difficult to rule on an appeal when an arborist hasn’t gone out in the field,” Tisdale said. “Developers list every tree as DDH and just provide a photograph.”
One case Tisdale found especially distressing was the proposed redevelopment of a house at 237 Robinhood Road in Sherwood Forest. The builder got permission to cut down three trees based on photographs. The builder wanted to cut down two other trees, but she was stopped by the Tree Conservation Commission.
Tisdale said that one of the trees she cut down was a 100-year-old oak tree that should not have been taken down.
There have been other instances where builders have not marked all the trees on the property, something an arborist on a site visit would have been able to flag.
All of this is happening at the same time the planning department is in the final stages of proposing a new tree ordinance for the city, which advocates hope will strengthen the protection of Atlanta’s tree canopy.
City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane, in a telephone interview Sunday evening, said his department has had to adapt to the pandemic by stopping field visits by all its inspectors.
“At some point relatively soon, all of our inspectors will be back out in the field,” said Keane, who defended the city’s arborists. “They work hard, and they care about trees. If you are an arborist, it’s because you have a passion for trees.”
Keane also said arborists naturally are skeptical when developers propose to cut down trees. Instead of getting beat up by tree advocates, Keane said the city’s arborists should be viewed as partners.
“We have a wonderful group of arborists,” he said. “We understand the motivation of developers.”
Meanwhile, Keane said his department likely will present a new tree ordinance by mid-October. “I’m feeling good about what’s going to be recommended to City Council,” Keane said.
Tree advocates, however, are doing all they can to help citizens become more active in the protection of trees.
The nonprofit group – The Tree Next Door – is promoting a new app that’s available on its Facebook page that will notify residents of any online permitting filed on property within a half-mile of one’s home.
“Never again be surprised again by a developer about to clear-cut a lot near your home or a DDH permit request being made on a healthy tree just two doors down,” according to an email notifying people of the new application. “Within 24 hours of an application being posted in Accela, you’ll receive a text!”
That’s a tool Kirkpatrick could have used when a developer had purchased five different parcels along Piedmont Avenue around the corner of her home. The back yards of those parcels back up to the alley along the side of her property. Several trees already have been cut down, and more are slated to be removed, which she said will greatly increase flooding and stormwater on her property. Plus, there’s the irreplaceable loss of tree cover, natural beauty and shade.
Meanwhile, the developer – John Mears –purchased two older houses on the Prado next door to her home. He has to plans to demolish those 100-year-old homes to build new duplexes on the land.
Mears proposed to cut down nearly every significant tree on the two lots, and he received preliminary approval from the city’s arborists.
But that’s when Kirkpatrick sounded the alarm. She and 48 neighbors filed an appeal to the Tree Conservation Commission, and on Aug. 16, the Commissioner gave the developer a 60-day delay to come up with a solution to save at least some of those trees. The case is scheduled to come back up to the Commission on Sept. 23.
On Sunday, Kirkpatrick met with Mears, who told her that his landscape architect had been working on a new plan that would save some of the trees. Now she and her neighbors need to get a constructive resolution with the developer building the duplexes on Piedmont – hopefully with the city’s help.
“This community really cares about what happens to the neighborhood,” Kirkpatrick said. “We care about our history, and we care about our quality of life.”