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Tree protection rewrite edging toward affordable housing talk of ‘granny flats’

David Pendered
old growth forest remnant Beecher Hills, Kolb

By David Pendered

Atlanta’s public process of revising the city’s tree protection ordinance is to continue next week at two community meetings. A final proposal isn’t expected for months as the discussion gets into the weeds over profit margins for developers and, possibly, affordable housing.

old growth forest remnant Beecher Hills, Kolb

This canopy in Lionel Hampton Beecher Hills Nature Preserve represents the canopy of Westside Atlanta, which is one of the highest-valued forests in Atlanta. File/Credit: Kathryn Kolb

One potential friction point involves the city’s determination of the extent of development allowed on any piece of land. Denser development on any given property can increase profit margins for a developer.

The development community has expressed the view that city codes allow development on all of the land that’s not reserved as set-backs from the property lines. As a city report relates developers contend that it is:

  • “Imperative that property owners must be able to fully utilize the ‘buildable area’ of their lot.”

Meanwhile, in regards to affordable housing, buildable area has yet to become part of the public conversation. The concept comes into play in the context of the current buzzwords of “accessory dwelling units” or “granny flats.”

Some developers endorse the notion of building a smaller homes behind big, expensive ones as a way to provide affordable rental dwellings. The language used, “granny flats,” “in-law homes,” can be more pleasing than describing them as a rental unit to help a buyer afford a home more costly than otherwise affordable.

The trade-off is that to develop the primary and accessory dwellings, a greater amount of the buildable area would be developed than if just a single house were built.

This procedure would increase the value of a developed property and, thus, the profit margin for the developer.

The upshot could be the removal of more trees – because the removal would be allowed under the city’s definition of “buildable area.” This is where the development community is arguing for a continuation of existing definitions.

Atlanta’s existing tree ordinance defines “buildable area” as follows:

  • “Buildable area means that area of the lot available for the construction of a dwelling and permissible accessory uses after having provided the required front, side, rear and any other special yards required by part 15 or part 16 of the city code.”

This issue of buildable area is one of several that are to be negotiated in coming months.

Any proposed tree protection ordinance is likely to appear well into 2020. Before the administration can put forth a proposed tree protection ordinance, the administration is slated to make three more public presentations: To the Atlanta City Council, to explain changes since a previous meeting; two more meetings with the general public. The council is slated to break for winter recess after its Dec. 2 meeting.

Atlanta acknowledged from the outset that tree preservation comes at a financial price.

That’s evident on the face of two of the city’s six benchmarks for establishing a new tree protection ordinance. These benchmarks say the intents and purposes of such an ordinance include:

  • “Balance City development goals: affordability, mobility, growth;
  • “Ensure there are equitable distribution of benefits and costs for all residents.”

The implementation of these concepts in one reason the city in 2014 shelved an effort to update a tree protection ordinance last updated in 2006, according to the city’s timeline.

Note to readers: Atlanta is conducting meetings on the tree protection rewrite Wednesday, Nov. 6 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Atlanta Technical College, Dennard Conference Center, 1560 Metropolitan Ave.; and Thursday, Nov. 7 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 3003 Howell Mill Road.

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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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