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Tree protection: ‘Atlanta City Design’ to shape discussion over new tree ordinance

Horizon site, kolb

A 260-year-old tree was among the trees removed from the site of the former Horizons School, located a few blocks east of the Candler Park neighborhood on DeKalb Avenue. File/Credit: Kathryn Kolb

By David Pendered

Some people fear a tree is going to fall onto their home and cause damage if not death. The new tree ordinance Atlanta is to begin drafting this month is to address this concern, as well as the widespread alarm over tree removal for new buildings and an ambitious goal about the tree canopy.

Horizon site, kolb

A 260-year-old tree was among the trees removed from the site of the former Horizons School, located a few blocks east of the Candler Park neighborhood on DeKalb Avenue. Credit: Kathryn Kolb

The new ordinance can’t come soon enough for some residents. Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane observed it couldn’t have come any sooner. The first of many rounds of public meetings are scheduled for April 23 and April 24. Final adoption is schedule by the end of this year.

Proposed revisions in the past of the tree ordinance have foundered on unresolved differences over the preservation of trees versus development. The rules of engagement are different this time. The conversation is to be illuminated by the city’s long-range visioning document – Atlanta City Design.

Keane said the book’s section Nature applies to the tree protection ordinance. The provisions observe: “Equity. Progress. Ambition. Access. Nature. If we build on these values, and if we aspire to the beloved community, we can design the Atlanta we want to become.”

The Planning Department took until this Spring to begin work on the tree protection ordinance so the ordinance could be based on results of the city’s first urban ecology study, the Urban Ecology Framework. The city describes the framework:

  • “This effort will evaluate and inventory the City’s natural environs, including rivers and creeks, forest and tree canopy, ridges and watersheds, public and private green spaces, and other features that encompass and define the City’s existing landscape.”

Only after the framework study was in shape could the city turn to the tree protection ordinance, Keane said at the March 12 meeting of the Atlanta City Council’s Community Development and Human Resources Committee:

Horizon site 2, kolb

A 300-year-old tree was among those cut down during the tree clearing on the site of the former Horizons School, on DeKalb Avenue. Credit: Kathryn Kolb

  • “There have been attempts in the past to redo the tree ordinance, which have not been successful. We decided to cast it in this context, which is, how do we get to 50 percent [tree canopy]? How do we protect nature in the city? Maybe we can get to a better tree ordinance in a process like this. We’ve done the hard work to get to the tree ordinance and residents will be involved every step of the way.”

Meanwhile, as the Urban Ecology Framework was being devised, furor over tree removal has been roiling in many of the city’s neighborhoods. The residential development boom stretching from Buckhead to Kirkwood is raising the collective blood pressure.

A decade ago, the main concern was teardown of a smaller home and its replacement by a big new dwelling that was out of character with the neighborhood. The phenomenon is now commonplace. Today’s concern is the tree removal that accompanies a teardown.

In tree-covered neighborhoods that aren’t hotbeds for redevelopment, residents have another set of problems with the city’s existing tree protection ordinance.

Council District 11 in Southwest Atlanta is such a place, stretching from Adams Park to west of Niskey Lake. Atlanta City Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet recited a common refrain by her constituents:

Trees, blackland

The orange sign shows that trees may be removed at the site a house that’s been demolished along Blackland Drive. Credit: David Pendered

  • “There are too many trees in my backyard, and one of them’s going to hit my house, and I want to get rid of some of them. … I’ve not talked to one person who said this went well.”

Overstreet had her own encounter as she strolled beneath the tree canopy on the way to a party in Niskey Lake.

  • “They need thinning, where the trees are so thick and dense they are causing harm to each other and the neighborhood. However, whenever they try to do it the right way, they [residents] are met with resistance and no one wants them to do it – even on their own dime.”

Some tree advocates contend the city hasn’t been serious about tree protection since 2008, when former Senior Arborist Tom Coffin was fired amid reports he was going to blow a whistle on lax enforcement of the tree ordinance. Coffin settled out of court over lost pay and retirement benefits, according to a report in atlantaunfiltered.com

The 50 percent tree canopy is Atlanta’s goal. A 2014 report showed the canopy covered an average of 48 percent, according to the report by Georgia Tech’s Tony Giarruso and Sarah Smith.

Note to readers: This month, two public meetings are scheduled to discuss recommendations of the Urban Ecology Framework and the schedule for the tree protection ordinance. April 23, 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., Cathedral of St. Philip, 2744 Peachtree Road, NW. April 24, 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., James Orange Recreation Center, 1305 Oakland Drive, SW.


tree map, blackland

This map shows the location and species of trees at the site where a house was torn down on Blackland Drive. Credit: David Pendered


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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