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Plan to cut down trees at Ponce library shows need for a strong tree ordinance

Maria Saporta

By Maria Saporta

When it comes to Atlanta’s trees, we can never let down our guard. Every day, there’s a new threat to cut down our precious trees.

That’s why we need a strong tree ordinance that protects our tree canopy – preserving our greatest natural amenity and retaining Atlanta’s unique stature as a city in a forest.

The latest threat is the Atlanta-Fulton County’s Ponce de Leon Avenue library branch. Currently there is a plan to cut down 17 trees on the lot to create extra parking spaces and a drive-through book drop.

Trees that would be cut down in front of the Ponce de Leon Library if a plan goes through (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Seriously?

Stephanie Coffin, a certified arborist and Virginia Highland resident, said the plan is to cut down “a stand of six giant myrtles “that “buffers the neighborhood from the busy, busy Ponce de Leon.  The myrtles are part of the removal plans for a few more parking spaces in the library renovation project.”

And that’s not all.

Plans by a Dallas, Texas designer also call for the removal of several large oak trees and hackberries on the side and the back of the building for the proposed drive-through book drop.

“The extra parking spaces and drive through book drop seem to be the only rationale for their removal,” said Coffin, who thought the current Atlanta Tree Ordinance does not allow for trees to be cut down for drive throughs. “(The trees) soak up the pollution from Ponce and also the heat and noise. Their usefulness to the neighborhood is huge.”

A stand of oak trees that helps buffer the library from the Virginia-Highland community would be cut down if plans go through (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Citizen input is needed to save these trees. And Coffin is convinced “there are good solutions to both the extra parking spaces and another spot for the book drop.”

Somehow we need to change the mindset of developers, architects, planners, homeowners, businesses, state and local governments. Keeping trees should not be optional. The goal from the beginning of any project should be to save as many trees as possible.

Fortunately, the city of Atlanta is moving in that direction.

Over the last couple months, the city has presented a draft revision of the city’s tree ordinance. An Atlanta City Council work session on the ordinance has been rescheduled to Thursday, Aug. 22 at 10 am.

But in the meantime, the City Council on June 18 approved legislation directing the city planning department “to conduct and coordinate consultations at the beginning of the permit review “ in an effort to protect Atlanta’s trees.

“The revision of our current Tree Protection Ordinance is an important next step in protecting our tree canopy,” said Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong in a statement at the time. “Currently, the tree review process occurs near the end of the review process. We are pleased that City Planning has agreed to immediately initiate this process change and look forward to receiving the proposed tree ordinance revision and hosting a work session in August.”

Trees that would be cut down along Ponce de Leon if plans go forward (Photo by Maria Saporta)

In other words, any building or development plans will consider existing trees at the beginning of the process rather than at the end. It should encourage architects and developer to build around trees rather than design projects that call for the removal of trees.

“That will help tremendously,” said Tim Keane, Atlanta’s city planning commissioner who added the work session had been pushed to August so the city could digest all the public participation that the draft ordinance had generated. “The amount of ideas that we had were overwhelming. We didn’t feel we were ready to go to City Council so quickly. We’ve got to catch up.”

The public has until July 17 to offer input for a new and revised draft.

Several good suggestions have been made to improve upon the draft tree ordinance.

Trees Atlanta has provided an official response – saying Atlanta can grow the city’s tree canopy to 50 percent of the land area without sacrificing affordability or mobility or population growth:

  • First, do no harm: no new formula or standard should make it easier or cheaper to remove trees.
  • We oppose allowing the removal of one healthy “tree per year no matter the condition.”
  • We oppose reducing or eliminating the recompense fee, posting, and appeals process, unless changes are designed to make it easier for applicants and impacted residents to use.
  • We support raising standards in ‘protected zones’ but not by lowering current standards or formulas that protect trees in other areas of the city. No community should be denied the ecosystem benefits of trees. Building higher density should not create hot zones.

Trees Atlanta also said it supports providing even greater protection of “high value trees.” For example, a single tree on a parcel can be “high value” when it contributes to a low canopy area or yard.

Kathryn Kolb, director of EcoAddendum and active in the “City in the Forest” organization, said Atlanta has a choice in the way it handles a growing population.

“We can either grow smart, and save meaningful amounts of trees as we grow, or we can grow without trees, and become a “hot mess” of a city in just a decade or so,” Kolb said. “Today Atlanta’s Tree Ordinance isn’t working – we are losing too many trees in new developments in our neighborhoods. If we do not prioritize saving high value existing trees today, in a few years…, we will no longer be the ‘City in the Forest.’”

When reviewing the original draft of a new tree ordinance, Kolb had the following suggestions:

  • Save more trees by planning for trees at the beginning of the development process.
  • Preserve our best trees, such as healthier, older oaks and native species located in the best soils.
  • Reduce grading and impervious surface – we can’t save trees without saving the soils in which they stand.
  • Code enforcement that effectively deters harm to trees on construction sites and illegal tree cutting.

Keane has been responsible for launching the Atlanta City Design project and the Urban Ecology Framework Plan to help the foster sustainable development patterns as the city continues, to densify. He knows the existing tree ordinance has its flaws.

Endangered trees on Ponce (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

“We want to change this whole program where you cannot write a check to remove trees,” Keane said.

As for specific criticisms with the proposed draft ordinance, Keane said his office gets lots of complaints from homeowners who can’t cut down trees on their property – which is why the first draft revision allowed for land owners to cut down a tree a year. “We put that out there as a straw man.”

Keane added that the city is open to suggestions from people who have problems with the draft revision and want to propose ideas on how to improve it.

Meanwhile, a sign is posted at the Ponce de Leon Library saying trees may be removed from the site. It’s time for such tree cutting in Atlanta to stop. We can never bring back the hundreds of trees that were killed on the Bobby Jones Golf Course. We can never bring back that amazing grove of trees that used to adorn the front of Piedmont Hospital.

But going forward, we must stop the irrational cutting down of trees in Atlanta. Let’s make sure we draft and adopt a model tree ordinance that will preserve our city’s tree canopy.

Front page of initial draft revision of Atlanta’s Tree Ordinance shows an aerial view of Atlanta. It states: “Atlanta’s ‘City in a Forest’ tree canopy is a source of pride and perhaps the defining natural feature of the city. It is an extraordinary economic, environmental, and quality of life asset, boasting the highest percentage of land area covered out of any any U.S. city.” (Source: city of Atlanta and the Urban Ecology Framework Plan)

A call for action showing people can call: 404-330-6874 to voice their views of plans to cut down the trees on Ponce (Photo by Maria Saporta)

 

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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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19 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Thomas S Woodward July 9, 2019 9:45 am

    Amen!Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Kathryn Kolb July 9, 2019 9:58 am

    When we make it a priority to preserve trees, it’s not hard to design new buildings while saving those trees that are established in the landscape and important to neighborhood residents. We can easily have new buildings AND keep our trees, it’s just a question of planning to include trees from the beginning of the design process — it’s really not that hard to do, we just need to make it an Atlanta community priority and do it moving forward. Or we’ll soon lose claim to the title City in the Forest. For more info on how to help make progressive changes to the City of Atlanta tree Ordinance, see https://cityintheforest.org/Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Kay Stephenson July 9, 2019 10:06 am

    This is beyond outrageous. I have never seen that lot full except when the library was being used as a polling place, and that location has been moved as of last year. So 1) they don’t need more parking. I also fail to understand why the county wants to provide amenities that discourage people from getting out of their vehicle and walking 10 steps to the book drop. Even if we didn’t care about the trees (and I very much do care) this plan is totally wrong for an urban library. We should be designing for people and not for cars.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Wormser Hats July 9, 2019 10:34 am

    It’s not like Atlanta is experiencing it’s first building boom in the nearly two decades that this ordinance has been in effect. Visionary as Mr. Keane and some under his charge might be, as a whole,the City of Atlanta and many within Keane’s-own department are reactive in their administration of our ordinances. If it weren’t so, there wouldn’t be so much outrage from a loss of trees that should otherwise be a nominal cost-of-business to both developers and citizens. However, when entire forested tracts and the most iconic trees along our streets are razed, frequently for nothing more than convenience of staging construction equipment, we’ve got leadership hypocritically promoting the virtues of one ideal while tacitly signing-off on another.

    Almost twenty years ago, Atlanta was once known for having among the country’s most aggressive tree protection codes. If the code hasn’t substantially changed, then what has?

    Even the most-ferocious new tree ordinance will be toothless after the ink dries, if the status quo of lackadaisical enforcement, as well as reactive planning and development leadership is allowed to persist.Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Debbie Zimmerman July 9, 2019 1:32 pm

    I use this library frequently. I have never seen another person, besides myself, using the book drop. The same holds true for 2 other libraries I often use where renovations included fancy drive-up book drops. I suspect a contract was granted for these book drops regardless of need or use of them. Cutting down all the libraries’ trees is certainly not what I intended when I voted in favor of a sales tax for library improvements.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    r ganger July 9, 2019 3:34 pm

    Please take action to protect the tree canopy here: https://cityintheforest.org/takeaction/Report

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Noel M July 9, 2019 4:49 pm

    Thank you for your coverage of this.

    On a side note, when I go to share this to Facebook, it only gives a generic preview, rather than a picture and a headline like most of your articles do when I share. Without the headline to the article, and a photo, it’s not very compelling to share. Just a friendly note, because I want to get the word out in a way that compels people to click and read. Thanks!Report

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Dianne Wisner July 10, 2019 9:51 am

    Thank you for your efforts on behalf of our entire city.Report

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    Henry Kahn July 11, 2019 10:39 am

    I use the Ponce de Leon Library. To the extent we have trees on the premises, my Library also brings a touch of “neighborhood park” to the harsh traffic and commercial intensity of Ponce de Leon Ave. This is an added benefit that MUST be preserved.

    Enhancements are appreciated when funds can be found. Please don’t waste our money on needless projects that promote automobile use. I’d be happier with more books, online services, and more comfortable library furnishings for our homeless neighbors who use the library (but don’t have cars).Report

    Reply
  10. Avatar
    Munro July 11, 2019 1:21 pm

    The renovation plan is flawed, the drive in book drop will have an entrance off Ponce into what will be a narrow drive way. Rear end wreck anyone? They plan a bank of computers in front of the children’s bathroom and didn’t know their was a children’s bathroom there. A new Family bathroom will be built between the men’s and ladies bathrooms giving Ponce four public bathrooms. They are cutting back on the book shelves which means fewer books. The removal of all those trees will be very bad for the library and the community. During public hearings they heard all the things they liked and dismissed any opinions contrary to their desires.Report

    Reply
  11. Avatar
    Tim Nichols July 11, 2019 2:04 pm

    Why is the city of Atlanta hiring a Dallas, Texas design firm to design a local public amenity? There are many fantastic architects that live in the adjacent neighborhoods or at least elsewhere in the City that would love a chance to design a library. Small or large.Report

    Reply
  12. Avatar
    Atlanta Resident July 11, 2019 6:28 pm

    Speaking of our cherished & necessary tree canopy: how long do you think it’ll exist, when as part of Atlanta’s Green
    New Deal the city wants solar panels on all roofs in 15 years?Report

    Reply
  13. Avatar
    Howard Katzman July 12, 2019 1:26 pm

    The Arborist Division has sent comments back stating that some trees don’t need to be removed to meet the plan’s intent, but it looks likely that they will allow at least some trees to be removed. It seems the Library needs to show how more parking spaces are needed. Do they have survey results showing a strong customer need for a drive-through book drop-off? The Arborist Division can only respond to the plans submitted; if we can get the Atlanta-Fulton Library System to modify their plan in order to preserve more trees that may be the best strategy.Report

    Reply
  14. Avatar
    Howard J Katzman July 12, 2019 1:43 pm

    The 2nd and final public input meeting on the proposed renovations was held on Feb 20 2019, according to the Library’s renovation website (http://afpls.org/director-of-the-library/2193). The powerpoint presentation (http://afpls.org/images/2019/Ponce_Library_Fact_Sheet_renovations-website.pdf) lists drive-up book return and increased parking as community comments. No indication is given as to the number of requests for these improvements. Would love to hear from people who attended that or other meetings on the library.Report

    Reply
  15. Avatar
    Alison Ross July 12, 2019 4:50 pm

    POSSIBLE GOOD NEWS!!

    I spoke to a branch manager today. She told me that the library is not going to close (next week as planned) until the “tree issue is resolved.” When I pressed her for details, she indicated that people have complained and that they might be reconsidering the removal of (some? all?) the trees. I just wrote an e-mail to their comment “hotline” and you should too! Flood the e-mail lines with your outrage over this unnecessary and environmentally irresponsible situation! I made the point that it’s counter to a public library’s guiding ethic to remove healthy trees (trees that provide benefits for free, much like a library provides books for free) and that trees and libraries can and should co-exist. I emphasized how it should be a given that library staff are environmentally conscious. I realize it is not necessarily up to individual staff members what happens, but whoever in the library system is green lighting this – or maybe it’s just the city, who knows – should be ashamed!!

    SEND AN EMAIL HERE:

    [email protected]Report

    Reply
  16. Avatar
    urban gardener July 12, 2019 6:36 pm

    The library system is part of Fulton Co government. How responsible is the County to City rules and regs in situations like this?

    Something similar (tree removal) is brewing with the slated Grady HS renovation, again where the agency in question (APS) seems to be exempt from City oversight mechanisms?

    How can City residents get more say into these larger outside entities and force them into compliance with City requirements and mediation with area residents’ desires?

    We live with their mess day in and day out, our property values are directly impacted by perceived area conditions, and we pay the taxes that fuel their follies…Report

    Reply
  17. Avatar
    Atlanta Resident July 12, 2019 7:41 pm

    The current situation at the Ponce library is being well publicized; what about all the trees that are being felled in
    neighborhoods all around town? Many without a permit. If a concerned neighbor reports the violation that info becomes
    public info and that neighbor has to live with the blow back.The city wants concerned neighbors to be their eyes and ears
    but will not protect their identity.Better enforcement would result if this situation were handled like Crime Stoppers:
    where the person who reports identity is held in confidence and perhaps shares in a small reward based on the amount of
    recompense money. Maybe then you’ll see an uptick in reporting.Report

    Reply
  18. Avatar
    Atlanta Resident July 13, 2019 1:12 am

    Kathryn Kolb, Love the idea of putting trees first in the permitting process rather than last as it is currently.
    That idea was first introduced years ago by Marsha Bansley esq, the founder of Trees Atlanta. I dread the
    thought of how barren Atlanta would look without the continuing efforts of Trees Atlanta. I so admire Marsha
    Bansley, Stephanie Coffin, fired arborist Tom Coffin, Dr. Jackie Echols and you Kathryn Kolb Thank you all so very much
    for caring so deeply about Atlanta’s trees!!!

    Now back to more carping: what’s with these new tree removal signs? “Trees MAY be removed”. Which trees? These
    signs are silly and not very informative. Also I’d like legislation that mandates invasive vines be removed that are
    strangling trees on all commercially zoned property and from trees on residential lots of 1/2 an acre or less and from all
    trees on the right of way. The city needs more arborists or at the very least to deputize interested citizens with enforcement
    powers. Tree trimming is very expensive, how about a slush fund to aid low income folks properly maintain their trees.Report

    Reply
  19. Avatar
    Dan July 13, 2019 8:19 am

    They need to incentivize keeping trees and planting large oak trees. Trees are expensive to maintain. And they are dangerous when they fall. People should get a property tax reduction if they plant or maintain a large oak tree.Report

    Reply

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