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Public speaks out on behalf of Atlanta’s trees

Maria Saporta
The beauty of Atlanta's trees evident on Moreland Avenue near Little Five Points (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta residents are speaking out loud and clear. Trees matter.

For nearly two years, the city and its consultants have been working on a new tree ordinance. Countless community meetings have been held. And the public has been promised draft legislation of a new ordinance since June.

On Wednesday. Nov. 6 and Thursday, Nov. 7, the city’s consultants were to present at the “Tree Ordinance Rewrite Community Meetings.”

The standing-room-only crowd at the Tuesday meeting made a “resounding call for a stronger tree protection law” – expressing great disappointment in the “outline” of a new ordinance, which many said provides less protection than the current tree ordinance, according to Lisa Frank, a citizen activist.

The public’s response was so intense that the city, with no explanation, cancelled the Thursday meeting only a few hours before it was to convene. About 35 people showed up because they had not gotten word of the cancellation.

The Wednesday night event – also attended by four city councilmembers – was so charged that Matt Westmoreland, an at-large councilmember, took the microphone and apologized on behalf of the city.

“I think we owe it to our residents, our constituents and our tree canopy to come out with a strengthened tree ordinance,” Westmoreland said in a telephone interview. “It needs to be stronger than the current ordinance.”

Westmoreland said that with climate change and with Atlanta’s growing population, it’s even more important to protect our existing trees.

Yes, it is possible for Atlanta to welcome new development and new residents while maintaining and even increasing our tree canopy.

After all, that was the promise of the Atlanta City Design Studio and its Urban Ecology Framework plan – initiatives heralded by Tim Keane, the commissioner of the city of Atlanta’s planning department.

Standing-room-only turnout at last week’s community meeting on the tree ordinance (Photo by DeLille Anthony)

It proposed a concept of preserving our tree canopy and our residential neighborhoods while urging greater density on our existing commercial corridors. It short, the idea was to have the best of both worlds. Preserve Atlanta’s beauty and encourage the development and redevelopment of our existing commercial and industrial areas.

But what the public has been able to discern from the proposed rewrite of the tree ordinance, the reality is falling far short of the visionary goal of protecting and expanding our tree canopy to at least 50 percent of our city.

Kathryn Kolb, founder of EcoAddendum and an advocate for our natural old growth forests, called the outline a “severe disappointment” that apparently incorporated little community input.

“The bottom line is you can cut anything, just like today,” she wrote, adding that developers may have to pay a little more, but that city could grant variances for even the highest value trees.

Kolb said she is concerned the appeals process could be eliminated and that homeowners could cut one healthy tree on their property each year.

Kathryns Kolb expresses her concerns about the city of Atlanta’s new tree ordinance (Photo by Jeannette Yen)

“To sum up, the current pay-to-cut policy is continued, and costs to cut trees are not high enough to offset land value, so it still incentivizes cutting trees,” Kolb wrote. There’s “no solid tree protection for even the highest value trees. Anything can still be cut.”

Kolb also said there’s no apparent reduction in the grading of land or the development of impervious surfaces, think parking lots.

As she sees it, Atlanta is a city in the forest. “It has a native urban forest unlike any other major city in the United States,” Kolb said. And Atlanta still has many pockets of old growth forests. Many native trees have natural life spaces of 500 to 800 years. Once they have been cut down, those forests can’t be replaced.

The new tree ordinance in the city of Atlanta also can become a model for the whole region – that’s one reason why we must get it right. We need to make sure that we change the metro area’s mindset when it comes to cutting down trees.

Developers inside and outside the city need to pivot in how they look at trees – and learn to develop around them. My hope is that eventually developers will realize that mature trees add irreplaceable value to their developments.

Raphael Bostic, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, did not really know this part of the country when he began his post in July 2017.

But to him, Atlanta’s native trees is what sets our city apart from other places he has lived. Bostic, an avid bird watcher, recently said: “When you fly into Atlanta, all you see is trees.”

We owe it to him and ourselves to keep it that way. To the city leaders and their consultants: we can, and must, do better.

The beauty of Atlanta’s trees evident on Moreland Avenue near Little Five Points (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Trees around Atlanta’s Water Works on the west side of the city (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

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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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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Jean Jordan November 12, 2019 10:13 am

    Along with a strengthened tree ordinance, more needs to be done to strengthen building ordinances. In Virginia Highland, we continue to see more and more older homes taken down and new mega homes built in their place. Not only are these homes unattractive and the scale totally out of whack for their lot size, trees must be removed as well. This is ruining our tree canopy and ruining the look and persona of our neighborhoods! For some reason, the neighborhood civic associations, NPUs, and the city just now seem to turn a blind eye to these matters these days.Report

    Reply
    1. Avatar
      Atlanta Resident November 13, 2019 2:59 pm

      Jean Jordan, I’m in total agreement with you about the devastating effects of removing homes & trees in order to build larger houses on the lot. IMO this issue cannot simply be tackled via the Tree Ordinance but has to be a 2 prong approach both by firming up the Tree Ordinance & attacking recent changes to the zoning code.Report

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Anna Hamer November 12, 2019 11:24 am

    Thank you Maria! The planning dept statement as to why the 2nd meeting was cancelled was odd, to say the least. They said they were not able to get public input in that format. Really, it was because, as a group, we refused to do their little exercise to play city planner. They then had almost 45 minutes of public input. ☆We are at the precipice of a climate emergency! Atlanta could lead the way to show how to do it right, save trees, protect canopy and old growth trees that are so rare. NO many little saplings do not equal the benefits of old wonderful trees! We must get the city to realize this. We can’t cave to the whims of short term gain for the developers. Trees have more value than their current “matrix” describes.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Eli Dickerson November 12, 2019 12:28 pm

    What are some productive, detailed, concrete solutions we could ask the city to implement?Report

    Reply
    1. Avatar
      Neil norton November 13, 2019 5:07 pm

      Smaller footprints in residential!Report

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Billy Howard November 12, 2019 2:33 pm

    Atlanta has always been besotted with developers at the expense of the citizens they represent. Development has exploded in town while the city does nothing for the public transit PROMISED along the belt line. We accepted the density in exchange, the city promised, for more transit. It is still pretty awe-inspiring to see the city from the air with all of its amazing tree canopy but if development continues at this level without a more thoughtful approach to our environment, including changing the emphasis from roads to rails, and as Maria and Kathryn point out, a strong tree ordinance, it may be that we just become another southern big city. Today’s politicians will be held to account by history, and citizens.Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Margaret S Brady November 12, 2019 9:24 pm

    Thank you, Maria.
    Sign up for emails at cityintheforest.org to get involved in this historic fight to preserve Atlanta’s unique canopy. We can’t save all trees but we must protect more trees and our best trees in residential areas if we want to preserve Atlanta’s urban forest for future generations. Follow City In The Forest on Facebook ????Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Jean K. Cooper November 12, 2019 11:12 pm

    Maria, your feature article on the Tree Ordinance is certainly on target. The City Planning Department is not planning; for this beautiful ” City Forest”; they might be developing a mechanism to destroy what differentiates Atlanta from other big cities. Please continue to follow this grave concern. Just ride down Peachtree Hills Avenue and see the new Senior Living development. Acres of trees are gone and saplings are being planted. Unfortunately, many of the Seniors will not see the saplings mature into ‘Trees’.Report

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Judy Yi, Trees Atlanta November 13, 2019 10:39 am

    The community is asking for a comprehensive schedule of work to be done with detailed deadlines and deliverables. At this point in the process, it would be productive to see the draft ordinance text. The ordinance is a law, and we need to see the specific language in order to give our support or alternatives.

    The essential truth is that trees have proven and measurable benefits for a city. Atlanta’s trees are valued because they affect the well-being and health of people who live, work, and play here. Our urban forest is a natural green infrastructure that is as important as an electricity grid or sewers, and deserves equal investment in maintaining and improving. This investment can offset other burdens on our built infrastructure. As our city grows, this is imperative.

    We need a tree protection ordinance that protects trees. Of course, correcting the transactional mechanisms (i.e., recompense formula) is part of the solution, but much of what we need is missing to date. Trees Atlanta can only support a rewrite that delivers better protection standards that saves more trees.Report

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Nancy E White November 13, 2019 4:09 pm

    There were a number of trees in the I-20 ROW (between exit 53 and exit 55A) that were cut down earlier this year. Some were where my street was bisected by I-20. There are several streets in my immediate neighborhood that abut I-20 but none had their trees cut down to the extent that they were by my street. Removing the trees removed the sound barrier they provided as well as the beauty. I have before and after pictures.
    A new tree ordinance needs to include the state and federal government in their conversations, so this doesn’t keep happening.Report

    Reply

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