(Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

By Hannah E. Jones

In 2018, 46.5 percent of the City of Atlanta was covered by our tree canopy — 1.5 percent less than a decade prior. Sadly, that trend is continuing with 24,000 trees cut down or tabbed for removal from July 2021 to June 2022. 

As one step toward better protecting them, the City of Atlanta implemented an updated Tree Protection Ordinance earlier this month. The ordinance has not been substantially changed since 2007. 

Phase One was passed by the Atlanta City Council in December, going into effect on April 13. The changes range from parking lot and building requirements to criteria around tree health and planting sites. Additionally, a new provision was created to allocate $200,000 to assist low-income homeowners with pruning or removing dead, dying or hazardous trees. 

On April 17, the City Council also approved legislation that establishes a goal of achieving and maintaining a 50 percent tree canopy. A study will be conducted every five years to evaluate how effective the Tree Protection Ordinance is in meeting that goal.

Chet Tisdale, a resident who serves on the Tree Conservation Commission, describes the recent ordinance changes as “modest.” Tisdale was appointed in 2019 by former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to the citizen review board that oversees and appeals tree-related decisions.

“The City concluded that the only thing they wanted to change in Phase One is what is considered to be ‘low hanging fruit,’” Tisdale said. “Those would be items and provisions of the tree ordinance which could be modified and improved without any controversy at all, without any objections from stakeholders.”

deLille Anthony of The Tree Next Door, a community group dedicated to enforcing the city’s tree ordinance and protecting its canopy, shared a similar sentiment.

“Because the main objective was to seek consensus, as opposed to preserving the tree canopy, the changes implemented are too modest to make any meaningful difference in the rate we are losing our tree canopy,” Anthony said.

The City itself says as much. On its website, the Department of City Planning states that a 2021 update failed to gain support and, instead, the department will take an incremental approach that’s described as “less controversial.” Discussions for Phase Two are set to begin this summer. 

According to Tisdale, the primary opposition came from residents who felt the 2021 proposed ordinance was inadequate in protecting the trees, as it allowed landowners and developers to remove 25 to 40 percent of the “priority trees” on a plot.

“It was not a preservation standard, it was a tree removal standard,” Tisdale said.

To strengthen the protections for Atlanta’s leafy giants, Tisdale would like to see a preservation standard set in stone. A preservation standard would offer a clear outline of when trees can and cannot be removed for construction or renovation.

“The standard has to be put into the law to prohibit someone from coming in, clear-cutting the lot and just paying a small fine,” he said. “Right now, there’s nothing to stop that.”  

In addition to tree preservation, Anthony would like to see a greater emphasis on replanting. One way of doing this is by raising the recompense fees — the fine for removing healthy trees — to the current amount it costs to replace them.

“We need to start collecting the money actually needed to replant the trees that are being removed and use that money to replant trees; otherwise, we are only ensuring a gradual erosion of our tree canopy,” Anthony said.

It’s clear that changes must be made to protect Atlanta’s tree canopy and legacy as the city in the forest. To check out the updated ordinance in greater detail, click here. Comments and feedback can be submitted to treeordinance@atlantaga.gov.

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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