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It shouldn’t be this easy to cut down healthy trees in Atlanta

Maria Saporta

By Maria Saporta

What a mess.

Back in November, I wrote a column about a couple dozen of high visibility trees in Midtown that were in danger of being cut down.

That included a dozen trees around the Jack Guynn Plaza in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta a few feet off Peachtree near 11th Street.

And there were another dozen trees along the sidewalks around the Campanile building at 14th and Peachtree streets that also had those dreaded “X”s showing their days were numbered.

All those trees have since been cut down. And the stories behind the two are puzzling and both situations point to the urgent need to have a tougher tree ordinance to protect Atlanta’s tree canopy.

The Atlanta Fed’s Jack Giuynn Plaza before the trees were cut down (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Let’s take the Federal Reserve trees. On Dec. 11, 2019 the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission reviewed a community appeal opposing the Atlanta Fed’s decision to cut down the 12 trees.

Surprisingly, the Tree Commission agreed with the community, and after nearly two hours of deliberation, it voted 4 to 3 against allowing the Atlanta Fed to down the 12 elms on the property.

The ruling stated that the Atlanta Fed could have come up with another plan an resubmit it in 60 days from that appeal, according to Stephanie Coffin, one of the people who had spoken against the Atlanta Fed’s plans. She called it a “stunning victory” at the time. “To be honest, I never expected this victory,” she wrote in an email. “As you know tree victories are few.”

But then the Atlanta Fed went ahead and cut down the trees any way, a move that several people close to the situation believe was an illegal act.

The Atlanta Fed plaza after the trees were cut down (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The Atlanta Fed, however, said that as a federal entity, it is not subject to Atlanta’s tree ordinance.

“While the Federal Reserve is not subject to the tree ordinance, we have always attempted to comply with its intent,” André Anderson, chief operating officer of the bank, wrote in an email. “In developing the original plan, we consulted with the city arborist, who indicated that it was in compliance with the ordinance. In addition, we participated in the appeal process in an effort to be responsive to neighbor concerns.”

Chet Tisdale, a member of the Tree Commission, disagreed.

“By filing an application with the City and participating in the appeal process, they may have waived the right to take the position that they are not subject to the ordinance,” Tisdale said. “I believe that the City should conduct an investigation and decide whether to take enforcement action against the persons who made the decision to remove the trees.”

Again, this sad situation is yet another incident that Atlanta’s trees almost always end up on the chopping block when developers, institutions and individuals want to cut down trees.

The way the sidewalk trees were cut around the Campanile building also raises concerns. Apparently, city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, and not the city arborist, controls the fate of trees on city sidewalks. Go figure.

Sidewalk trees along Peachtree Street in front of Campanile building (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Developer John Dewberry is renovating the Campanile building, and his company has said it was necessary to cut down those trees to redo the building’s entrance.

But when the contractor cut down the trees, it only cut off the tops of the trees – leaving about six feet of the trunks as a sorry reminder of what once was there.

Kent Matlock, a friend of Dewberry, asked on behalf of SaportaReport, why the trees were cut down that way.

Dewberry told him it was “to avoid someone falling in the crater that would be left.”

Matlock also said nobody loves trees more than John Dewberry, and he will replace them with “beautiful, older trees that will add to the landscape and help usher Peachtree and 14th streets into the next century.”

Parks Commissioner John Dargle, when asked about the trees on the sidewalks around the Campanile building said his department would investigate the matter.


After: the remaining five-foot high stumps of the trees along Peachtree Street (Photo by Maria Saporta)

For Tisdale, who is an avid protector of Atlanta’s trees, both instances point to the need for tougher regulations to save the city’s tree canopy and to adopt a stricter tree ordinance.

“The arborist needs to emphasize that the removal of trees is a move of last resort unless the tree is dead, dying or hazardous,” Tisdale said. “Someone should not be allowed to simply remove a healthy tree and pay money. They should be required to show it’s absolutely necessary for their development.”

As I see it, property owners and developers should do everything in their power to design and develop their projects to keep as many significant trees as possible. The city needs to be able to strongly encourage everyone that cutting down healthy trees is absolutely a last resort. When trees are cut down despite the arborist or the Tree Commission voting against such a move, there should be real consequences – far greater than just having to pay a nominal fine.

Lastly, all of Atlanta’s trees – those on sidewalks, on government property (county, state or federal) or on private property – should be subject to a strict Tree Ordinance that is enforced.

Our city and our trees deserve nothing less.

Atlanta Fed Plaza before the trees were cut down (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Atlanta Fed Plaza after the trees were cut down (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Sidewalk along 14th Street at the Campanile building in November (Photo by Maria Saporta)

14th Street at the Campanile building after the trees were cut down (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Rendering of how the Campanile building will look after the renovation (Special: Dewberry Group)

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Maria Saporta
Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Gus B Kaufman January 29, 2020 9:38 am

    I am an ardent conservationist. I do think this story is incomplete and unfair as concerns the Federal Reserve trees. They were Chinese elms and will be replaced with native trees. This is an improvement.

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    1. Avatar
      Sudie Nolan January 29, 2020 11:12 am

      It is true that the Federal Reserve was removing 12 mature Chinese Elms. The proposal was to replace them with four very small Red Bud trees. The net loss was 8 trees and 154 dbh. The Elms handle a tremendous amount of storm water runoff…and what’s unclear is WHY these trees needed to be removed. As a citizen who was part of the appeal to save the trees, I’m shocked the the Federal Reserve Bank decided to “play by the rules” and then ignore them when the decision didn’t go their way. In the end, they wasted tax payer and community resources.
      Very disappointing–and I think we need to tighten the tree ordinance.

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  2. Avatar
    Edie Cofrin January 29, 2020 9:42 am

    I appreciate the concern for not cutting healthy trees. Thanks. I’m very concerned about not so healthy trees in parks and along streets that hang over sidewalks. Dead limbs are a serious public hazard and yet arborist and park maintenance are overlooked. Please look into the financial issues around park maintenance. Thanks

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  3. Avatar
    Mark B Rinder January 29, 2020 9:49 am

    While I applaud your enthusiasm toward protecting Atlanta’s trees, where is the passion when it comes to developers building skyscrapers and leaving giant power and telephone poles standing? To me, this is a blight issue which, by the way, also affects our canopy much more severely than these 12 trees! Georgia Power (and whomever else has authority over the power poles) routinely butcher our tree canopy leaving horribly disfigured trees (but, thank goodness, they won’t interfere with the power poles, right??).

    Well intentioned article but I think your emphasis is on the wrong syllABLE!

    Respectfully submitted,
    Mark B Rinder
    Ansley Park

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    1. Avatar
      ben dooley January 29, 2020 1:20 pm

      AMEN!! In some cases i actually think it would be aesthetically less problematic to remove some trees berfore GA Power gets to them with their chain saws!

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  4. Avatar
    M T January 29, 2020 10:05 am

    This is disgusting and apparently the owners have no regard for the many positive elements that trees provide. Two good examples of bad decisions.
    The Fed building basically took away the shade from an existing seating area..So they are going to put new trees in. Sorry don’t get it.
    If the Parks department wants to reduce work by taking trees down, they need more funding.
    In the residential areas of Atlanta, developers are clearing entire blocks of trees before they build. One site on Peachtree Dunwoody Rd. seems to be a dead project with no activity in several months. Clear cut in advance.
    We like to call ourselves in public relations “the city of trees”, but that will not be the case if the Tree Commission allows every developer to get what they want. Thanks for writing this story. I pass by both locations daily and am especially appalled by the Dewberry stumps. A bad reminder of a poor decision.

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  5. Avatar
    Wormer Hats January 29, 2020 11:56 am

    With props to Joyce Kilmer and Ogden Nash:

    I think that I shall never see a bureaucrat lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the bureaucrats fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.

    To far too many down at City Hall, trees in the urban environment are regarded as mere decorative accessories, not green-infrastructure essential to quality-of-life and sustainability. This is why Peachtree Street through midtown has become awash in tree-less, grey-toned facades, where once earth-toned brick and lush sidewalks welcomed pedestrians. Nothing about these tree removals increased market-rate square footage, but simply satisfied a commercial broker’s zeal to hock a “fresh look.”

    For the most part, the Tree Commission is an appointed, voluntary adjudicative body with limited authority that can and has been overruled by paid city officials. What Atlanta needs is a sea change in attitudes of key public officials on Trinity Avenue, or we need to simply change out the public officials. In either case and no matter what threats they might lob, developers and homebuilders aren’t going to flee for economic opportunities elsewhere simply because our city esteems its identity.

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    1. Avatar
      Selene January 29, 2020 11:24 pm

      What possible reason did the Fed have for this removal? Definitive studies conclude that shade trees enhance quality of life in dense urban areas.in myriad ways. It doesn’t make sense.

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  6. Avatar
    ST January 29, 2020 11:59 am

    Where the tree conservation commission is able to determine the exact number of trees upon which a tree protection ordinance violation occurred, a fine imposed for the first violation shall be no less than $500.00, and the fine imposed for each subsequent violation shall be $1,000.00. Each tree upon which a violation occurred shall be deemed a separate violation of the tree protection ordinance.
    This is from the City of Atlanta Tree Ordinance, which has not yet been revised. There are other provisions, which can raise the penalty to $60,000 per acre. This is not a deterrent for virtually all construction and renovation.

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  7. Avatar
    Bill Wesley January 30, 2020 5:35 am

    Sadly, people often plant too many trees in one spot. They need to plant according to the size to which the trees will eventually grow. The trees at Oxford College are nearly 200 years old and a few small ones need to be planted to replace the older trees when they die or are felled for safety reasons. They are close to their maximum age. True, Atlanta is no longer “The city beneath the trees”, but merely a place where the developers can kill all they want. The loss of trees at Bobby Jones Golf Course is a tragedy.

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  8. Avatar
    Rob Glancy January 30, 2020 7:38 am

    What was the justification that the Fed gave for needing to cut down the trees on their property? I do not see an explanation unless I missed it in the article.

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  9. Avatar
    Judy Yi, Trees Atlanta January 30, 2020 12:20 pm

    We agree: it SHOULD NOT be this easy to cut down healthy trees in Atlanta. There is hope: the effort to rewrite the City of Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance is still actively underway. We encourage you to share your points of view with the City Council. They will ultimately shape and vote on what changes will be introduced to our new Tree Protection Ordinance. The final draft is scheduled to be up for a vote by spring of this year.

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  10. Avatar
    Judy Yi, Trees Atlanta January 30, 2020 4:33 pm

    *UPDATE: A new schedule of the rewrite process has been posted to the City of Atlanta website. The final rewrite is expected by August 2020. More information on the project and schedule is available at https://www.atlantaga.gov/government/departments/city-planning/urban-ecology-framework.

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  11. Avatar
    Atlanta Resident February 6, 2020 3:49 pm

    Leaving unsightly tree stumps unfortunately is not a violation. Under the current ordinance a permit is required for removing more
    than 1/3 of the canopy; there’s absolutely no provision for removing stumps. I know of a beautiful old oak that was removed under the
    hazard provision & now a stump of over 100′ is left standing

    IMO a real tree activist cannot be appointed to the Tree Commission to understand this it bodes well for one’s peace of mind.to
    bear in mind developers run the city & contribute generously to the campaigns of their political puppets. Gee wiz, what did anyone think
    all this density worship was all about? Unfortunately protecting trees is now considered bourgeois pandering & many times an impediment to affordable housing & sustainability. The only thing being sustained is density. Whenever you hear the new rallying
    cry for sustainability please bear in mind what it means to the high priests of concrete & steel. Please do not confuse the term with
    environmentalism.

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