By Maria Saporta
Protecting Atlanta’s urban tree canopy is facing a real-world challenge in East Atlanta.
An inspiring group of neighbors and citizen activists have launched a grassroots initiative – Save Ormewood Forest – a 6-acre tract with old-growth trees.
For seven years, the community has been able to fight proposed developments for the property – mostly from residential developers who would fill the property with single-family homes.
The latest proposal comes from Heritage Capitol Partners, which is proposing to fit as many as 21 houses on this environmentally-fragile oasis only three miles from the heart of downtown. It is located within the block bounded by Ormewood Avenue, Flat Shoals Avenue, Oakfield Drive and Shadowridge Drive.
More than 1,200 people have signed a petition to Save Ormewood Forest. About 50 neighbors showed up on Aug. 10 to the Zoning Review Board at the Atlanta City Hall hoping to stop a rezoning of the property.
Despite the neighborhood’s strong opposition to the rezoning and despite a staff recommendation to not rezone the property, the Zoning Review Board granted Heritage Capitol a 90-day deferral to try to work with the community.
That move is unfortunate because it makes it harder to achieve “the best-case scenario” outcome in the near future.
The best-case scenario would be for the City of Atlanta and its multiple conservation and environmental organizations to acquire the 6-acre tract and preserve the Ormewood Forest in perpetuity.
When the developers bought the property, they were well aware of the community’s desire to save the forest. And it’s not just the Ormewood Forest with its 100-year-old trees.
The property also includes the headwaters for Intrenchment Creek, a spring-fed stream that is vital to the ecological balance of the land, its watershed and the surrounding community. The property also is home to valuable wildlife habitat as well as flora and fauna.
But it’s also a forest that needs tender love and care. The historic Beulah Church of Christ Holiness church sat in the middle of the property for decades until the 1990s, when the church building was removed.
“Since then,” according to the Save Ormewood Forest website, “the propery has been neglected, and populated by invasive plant species. The stream that begins on the property is overtaxed and is suffering from poorly maintained street culverts.”
The Save Ormewood Forest leaders have been working with numerous city departments as well as a host of nonprofits focused on land conservation, tree preservation and an ecologically healthy city.
Ideally, a public-private partnership would be able to step in to acquire the property and come up with a long-term plan to restore the forest and remove the invasive plant species on the property. The former church site could become a wonderful meadow within the forest and could be enjoyed by neighborhood residents and the city at large.
Atlanta is at a pivotal point in its history – one where it is seeking to steer new development to already-built commercial corridors and one that establishes conservation areas where we have low-rise neighborhoods nestled among the trees that make up Atlanta’s urban forest.
During a July greenspace forum with 10 Atlanta mayoral candidate, they answered the question: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it to protect Atlanta’s tree canopy (with 10 being most important)?”
Every candidate answered “10” or higher.
Atlanta, we now have an opportunity to back that sentiment with action. Somehow, we need to find a mechanism to protect the fragile urban forests that remain – whether it be by using money from the tree-recompense fund or implementing any number of tools – from conservation easements to transfer of development rights to outright acquisition from the nonprofit community.
As we venture into this new world of preserving Atlanta’s tree canopy, we also need to come up with a reasonable plan to maintain the greenspace for the public’s benefit.
The last thing we need as a community is to start pitting one urban forest against another – by establishing certain metrics on the size of the land, the number of trees and the cost of acquisition.
In short, we need to be in a position where we are saving every significant piece of forested land in Atlanta – a city that stands out as a city in a forest.
If we remain true to our core values, perhaps developers would self-select the sites that are appropriate for new development and the sites that need to be preserved in their natural state.
Saving Ormewood Forest would be a great place to start.