Rapid growth in Atlanta combined with inadequate enforcement of Atlanta’s current tree ordinance has allowed developers to pay a fine to cut down trees which has resulted in a decrease to Atlanta’s Urban Forest.
This prompted the latest attempt to re-write the tree ordinance which started back in March 2018 with an urban ecology study, and originally was planned to end during the summer of 2019, but now they are talking about March 2020.
At a public meeting on November 6th at the Metropolitan College, the public took control of the meeting to express their concerns and suggestions to Dr. Kevin Nunnery, Project Manager, with Biohabitats and Jenny Gulick, a consultant with Urban Canopy Works.
Tree advocates and the public were alarmed and outraged at several proposals in the new tree protection ordinance (TPO).
Tree advocates are opposed to the policy that allows one non-high value (no definition of non-high value in the proposal) tree to be cut down each year by property owners and developers for non-construction purposes.
“This proposal has been widely criticized since it was first introduced last June, given that it does nothing to save the tree canopy. Many people feel it could quickly decimate the tree canopy, particularly in neighborhoods with smaller yards that may have only two or three trees to begin with,” deLille Anthony, Co-Founder, The Tree Next Door, and the Tree Canopy Chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, said.
Another policy discussed at the meeting and rejected by the public was the tree valuation method to determine the value of a tree so developers will know how much to pay to cut a tree down.
They produced a chart with categories from 1 to 5 to determine under what circumstances trees can be removed or replaced and how much money developers will pay to cut the trees down.
“Category 4 and 5 trees would be assessed more than they are currently being assessed. All the other trees in categories 1, 2, and 3 would be assessed the same or less, meaning that developers might be paying less recompense overall with this new tree value matrix,” Anthony explained in an email.
The problem with this value matrix, despite being unscientific and arbitrary…there was nothing that specified how trees were going to be saved. Even the highest-value trees could be taken down with a variance,” Anthony said.
Another proposal the public has overwhelmingly opposed in other meetings is the elimination of the posting and appeals process. Tree advocates want the appeals and posting process expanded, not eliminated, in order to keep transparency, prevent corruption, and provide citizen oversight
The city is not listening to the public because in City Planning’s overall summary there is not any mention of public objection to eliminating the posting and appeals process. Instead, in the City’s assessment of board-specific feedback, the City believes the public is receptive to eliminating appeals on projects in which standards are being met and streamlining the process on others.
But in meeting after meeting the public has been totally against eliminating appeals and they don’t trust the streamlining process. By reducing citizen oversight, the City is reducing transparency and encouraging corruption, according to the Tree Next Door website.
Stephanie Coffin dropped a bombshell with a report that The Tree Next Door created with data obtained from Open Records on the number of trees cut down in the past eleven years.
“The arborists are supposed to keep quarterly reports and for eleven years they have not published these reports. And for eleven years we have not known the number of trees coming down, how many are hazardous, or where they are coming down from,” Coffin with the Tree Next Doors, said.
“We finally got this information from open records and it shows a massive tree lost. The concern is enforcement because the Arborist Department is not enforcing the law and there are incredible amounts of illegal removal on the weekend,” Coffin said.
The report was given to everyone in the room and it shows that from 2014 to 2019 the total trees lost were 84,838 and total trees replaced were 39,596, a 47% replacement rate. Total trees net loss was 45,242. But the rate of tree loss is growing as development is increasing – a 9% increase in just the past year alone – and the replacement rate has shrunk to 40% over the past two years. Moreover, an inch-for-inch replacement has been only 7% since replacement trees are significantly smaller.
A 2014 study by Georgia Tech found the city’s tree canopy at 47 percent and the city’s goal is to increase the canopy to 50 percent. But as you can see from the Arborist report since 2014, Atlanta has lost 45,242 trees, and less than half were replaced, so the canopy is likely to be less than 47% today.
Kathryn Kolb, founder of Eco-Addendum brought in tree rounds to the November 6th meeting, some of which were over 200 years old, that have been cut down, and these old-growth forest trees are not replaceable.
“We have an old-growth forest in Atlanta and almost 80 percent of that forest is located in single-family residential zoning. None of this [tree ordinance rewrite] is addressing the tree lost there,” Kolb said.
Other comments from the public included concerns about water retention, young vs mature trees, animal habitat, math formula reducing the value of trees, developers, accelerating tree removal, and removal of our best trees.
Here are a few summarized comments from that meeting:
…Small trees don’t soak up the water that large mature trees do. Large homes reduce the space for trees and large roofs cause greater water run-off dumped into our storm drains.
…Replacing young trees for mature trees does not give the shade of a mature tree canopy nor reduce the carbon or soak up as much water as a mature tree.
…Increase the value of trees with insects, fruit, and nuts because this is food for our birds and some species of birds are going extinct.
…Your math formula seems to reduce the value of trees. It is purely a monetary value system…but at the end of the day we can still cut the tree and pay a price ….there is no protection for the trees.
… Developers are the problem. Why is there no transparency for developers so they can get graded on how many fines and violations they have incurred?
…Mega developers are building twenty million-dollar homes and regardless of the fee, they are not going to feel it – it’s just part of doing business. If they do this illegally, will you restrict their ability to develop?
… Why are you not proposing something to not remove our best trees unless they pose a safety hazard?
…As long as the process allows for the removal of our best trees even for a variance, this process is meaningless.
… The longer we talk about this the more developers are accelerating cutting down trees.
… All of these questions are repeated at every meeting and are never answered.
A climate change refugee from Miami, Donald Shockey, told the audience why he moved to Atlanta.
“I lived in Miami for 28 years and now I’m a climate refugee because of the sea-level rise. I moved to Atlanta because of the tree canopy. I have been disturbed to see the clear-cutting and failure to enforce the bad old tree ordinance. This summer I experience the summer from hell with 95-degree temperatures for weeks. This is a crisis situation and the only thing we can do about climate change is to make it cooler by shading our communities and keep our trees to make Atlanta livable. I don’t want to be a climate change refugee from Atlanta,”
Trees are front line soldiers in combating climate change and if Atlanta does not get the TPO right, sometime in the future Atlanta could be too hot to live in.
After the November 6th meeting, Dr. Louisa Bond Moffitt sent a letter to Councilwomen, Jennifer Ide with copies to all the Council members informing them of a lack of trust and anger from the public. Her letter requests the City Council “to pull the plug on this ineffectual committee and see if we might get a group together that could come up with a plan that would be worth the 1.2 million dollars we have already wasted on this effort.”
A meeting scheduled for the next day, November 7th, was suddenly canceled possibly because of the public’s outrage at the current TPO.
On the Urban Ecology Framework website, a post cites, “We discovered that the presentation and meeting format was not conducive to receiving feedback on the key concepts that were presented. ….We will be reevaluating the schedule and our approach to future engagements….Stay tuned for further information.
Video links courtesy of Debra Robinson, Videographer
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https://vimeo.com/372263050 The Tree Valuation Method
https://vimeo.com/372271941 Kathryn Kolb
Written by Gloria Tatum with additional reporting by deLille Anthony