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