Environmentalists, builders seek more density without cutting down trees
By Maria Saporta
If Atlanta is to save its precious tree canopy, there’s a lesson to be learned from the adversaries-turned-friends experience between environmentalist John Noel and developer Adam Brock.
Ideally that lesson will help our city frame the ongoing rewrite of Atlanta’s tree ordinance, and we’ll find a way to increase our city’s population while protecting our trees.
Initially, Brock wanted to cut down almost all the trees on land at 2081 Hollywood Road in northwest Atlanta.
Adjacent property owners Wendy Hogg and John Noel filed an appeal to prevent Brock from cutting down the trees that also would have impacted their property.
“Their development was going to take up the roots that were part of the trees on my property,” Noel said. “We won the appeal, and they gave us 60 days to negotiate with Adam. It ended up resulting in a massive tree save.”
Noel, a former state representative who is now running for the District 4 seat on the Public Service Commission, said during the negotiation with Brock, they struck a private agreement backed by a $100,000 escrow if the developer violated the pact.
“We’ve gone from a 95 percent tree loss to massive tree preservation,” Noel said in a telephone interview from his home in Augusta. “We see this as a potential model upon which we can base future improvements. It shows a developer can get the same or greater yield if they are forced to think creatively.”
In an email, Brock said he and Noel “have forged a friendship out of what started as a contentious relationship. I believe there is mutual respect and understanding between us.”
It’s a surprising turn of events because Adam and his father, Steve Brock, have not been known as developers who protect trees.
In fact, Noel said he was suspicious at first because of his experience with Steve Brock.
“I wouldn’t trust Steve Brock any further than I can throw him,” Noel said. “He lied to me 15 years ago when I asked him to save one tree. He agreed to do it, and then he cut down the tree.”
But somehow the younger Brock and Noel were able to work through those issues and Noel said, “there’s a big difference between Steve Brock and Adam Brock.”
In his email, Adam Brock said he was pleased that through the tree appeal process that he was introduced to Kathryn Kolb, a strong advocate for saving Atlanta’s old growth forest.
“I have been working with Kathryn Kolb and Tierson Boutte (local Atlanta arborist), on a set of revisions to the current tree ordinance that would actually meet the goal of protecting trees, and ensuring replanted trees are done so in a meaningful way,” Brock said. “We have come up with a couple of ‘quick fixes’ we believe could have strong immediate impacts, and could be supported by the tree lobby and my industry.”
In Adam Brock’s mind, “the current tree ordinance rewrite proposal is bad policy.” It is “dramatically more complex” and it “increases cost by 1000 percent in some cases.” As a result, Brock said: “it has a completely disproportionate impact on lower income, less developed communities,” and “it would be a major setback for affordability” – one Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ top priorities.
Kathryn Kolb, director of the nonprofit EcoAddendum, said proposed rewrite continues the unfortunate “transactional” process where developers pay the penalties for cutting down trees as part of their development costs. Doubling those penalties, as currently proposed, just increases those costs.
Instead Kolb said the new tree ordinance should be designed to save the most valuable trees in our city.
First, the ordinance should mandate a “pre-application conference,” where a developer or builder has to first consider trees before turning in building plans.
“The developer makes a commitment to what he or she is going to save,” said Kolb, adding that the appeals process is equally important as in the Noel-Brock case. “The tree appeal should also be done up front. It saves the developer time, and that’s when there is the most flexibility to change plans to protect trees.”
The second improvement would be for the city to prohibit developers from cutting down the higher value trees.
Kolb has developed a tree value matrix, which is a simple way to categorize the most valuable trees on a piece of land. If developers are given flexibility to alter their plans to save trees, the city could waive other zoning restrictions, like setback requirements.
“The entire crux of this issue is that developers and builders don’t want to save trees because they want to maximize the value of their development. At the end of the day, you can build more density without cutting down trees,” Kolb said. “
We need to develop a culture in the city of Atlanta that values our green infrastructure.”
What Kolb is proposing would result in “a much simpler process, and it answers the problem of the equity of tree recompense. It’s much less complicated.”
That’s what was most appealing to Adam Brock.
“We believe there are simple solutions to be had here, and that it is possible to allow for development and urban forestry,” he wrote in the email.
Atlanta City Councilman Matt Westmoreland, who chairs the Community Development/Human Resources Committee, had to postpone a work session on the proposed new tree ordinance because of the Coronavirus.
In a letter to “tree canopy stakeholders” on March 26, Westmoreland said the work on the rewrite would continue.
“Protecting our ‘City in the Forest’ is a critically important priority for Atlanta,” Westmoreland wrote. “In the intervening weeks, we will work closely with the Planning Department, community stakeholders, and the public to keep the city on track for final passage in August.”
This column follows last week’s column that disclosed tensions on a city advisory group between Steve Brock and Tim Keane, the city’s planning commissioner.