Atlanta’s New Tree Ordinance is a Tree Removal Ordinance

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photo by Gloria Tatum – crews cutting down a 300-year-old champion white oak in 2015- no tree is safe….

The City of Atlanta’s latest revision of the Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) is that in name only and was overwhelmingly rejected by the tree community and the public at a 2/17/21 City Council meeting.

The Atlanta City Council listened for almost five hours as 232 citizens called in to say a loud NO to Commissioner Tim Keane’s latest draft of the City’s TPO and a few folks demanded his resignation to save the trees.

The biggest complaint with the City’s TPO was that it did not protect the trees; many called it a “Tree Removal Ordinance” and said that it was worse than the existing ordinance.

The majority of those 232 citizens said they preferred the Citizens Group Blended Draft produced by a small citizens group led by Kathryn Kolb and Tierson Boutte.  The Citizens Group Blended Draft combines the City’s Draft with the Citizens Draft.

The Citizens Blended Draft is much better than the City’s draft because it fixes many of the problems in the City’s draft; however, it is still a work in progress.  Other tree advocates have their own input they are providing the City. Hopefully, the Atlanta City Council will recognize the improvements to the tree ordinance offered in the  Citizens Blended Draft and other tree advocates’ feedback and possibly restore even more protections for trees before voting to pass a new tree ordinance.  .  

The current TPO draft is a complicated, complex document that few people understand except for lawyers hired by developers to find all the exemptions and loopholes to jump through.  

The Tree Next Door’s website lists 20 of the worst problems with the City’s draft and this article will explain a few of those problems. 

New Zoning Code Will Destroy The Tree Canopy

Some tree activists wonder if they should worry about the latest TPO since Atlanta’s new zoning regulations coming out of Tim Keane’s Department of Planning and Zoning may wipe out all tree protections. 

“Is the right hand not talking to the left hand in the city?” deLillie Anthony,The Tree Next Door member, wants to know. “The only trees developers  won’t be able to cut down are some of the high priority trees in single-family residential neighborhoods, but this  new zoning plan eliminates all single-family residential zoning.”

The new zoning will take away single family residential zoning to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) in the backyard with the ability to sell that house separately from the rest of the lot. 

This will destroy Atlanta’s tree canopy since 85 percent of its trees are on private property lots. The proposed zoning will subdivide single family lots and give homebuilders a way to build a fully contained house with a kitchen and bathrooms in the back of the property. This is already happening in Tuxedo Park in Buckhead where there are large lots.  

“It’s a devious agenda and we will lose our trees under this zoning plan by Keane. He is freeing the tree ordinance from traditional zoning and that will allow for more trees to come down,” Stephanie Coffin,The Tree Next Door member, tells The Streets of Atlanta.

The Atlanta City Design proposal for eliminating single family zoning states that “11,500 new units would be created if 15% of current single family properties added a second unit.”  But what this equation doesn’t include are the thousands of trees that would be lost building those news units in the backyards of existing single-family homes. 

The City is focused on growth vs trees and trees are losing. “The tree canopy should not be sacrificed for growth but that is the approach they are taking,” Anthony tells the Streets of Atlanta. 

Anthony pointed out that the city’s growth projections are based on models before COVID.   After a year of COVID, more people have demonstrated they can work from home and are no longer tied to a corporate office. Many people may decide they don’t want to move back into the city if they can work from home. It’s equivalent to when cell phones freed people from landlines.

Exemptions Gone Wild In The Latest TPO Draft 

“The most stunning exemption in the TPO draft allows the city to exempt any project from having to comply with the TPO if the city thinks it meets one of their goals for the public good. When the tree community called them out on this exemption in the draft they released in March 2020, they simply reworded it in this latest draft to mean the same thing,” Anthony said. 

There are so many exemptions and credits in the ordinance that allows developers to get out of paying for replacement trees. These exemptions to developers fails to ensure enough tree replanting or recompense to maintain the existing tree canopy

The Tree Trust Fund

The latest TPO places the Department of City Planning in control of managing the Tree Trust Fund (TTF) with no financial reporting requirements.  It also reduces the frequency of the current quarterly tree reports to be produced only annually. 

This is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. These are the same people that misused over $3 million dollars from the TTF and did not collect $2.2 million in illegal tree removals.  After this discovery by the City Audit, they asked for more accountability, more transparency, and more financial records from City Planning.  

However, what they got from City Planning and Commissioner Keane was to ignore the findings in the audit. The latest TPO draft has less transparency and only an annual report with less accountability, fewer financial records, and no accounting for recompense. 

Commissioner Keane shifts the fund from planting trees to a wide array of spending and, worst yet, he puts himself as the only voice who decides where the TTF money is spent. He refuses to work with the Tree Conservation Commission to make a budget and help with a plan for the Educational Outreach Fund.

“It is shocking that Keane can get away with this. It is a fuck you to the City Audit and city control. Mayor Bottoms has allowed him to take care of all this development and she is not acting in a leadership role to guide this process which creates a vacuum at City Hall.  Keane has stepped into that vacuum and is going to do whatever he wants to do and there does not seem to be any way to stop him,”Coffin said.

“The way the ordinance is written now the TTF is going to be Tim Keane’s slush fund to do whatever he wants, with no reporting requirements,” Anthony said.

Sewer Contaminated Flood Water In Atlanta

Why is Atlanta having stormwater contaminated with sewage in some communities in Atlanta?  Since everything is connected we must look to the city’s combined sewer system, development, removal of trees, and more concrete to find the answer.

In 1997 the City of Atlanta was forced to upgrade its sewers by the federal government. Atlanta had 19 square miles of combined sewer. The city separated stormwater and sewage into separate pipes except for nine square miles.  The nine miles that are still combined expand outward from downtown Atlanta into the South River and Chattahoochee River watersheds, according to Jacqueline Echols, Board President, South River Watershed Alliance. 

All the rainwater from downtown Atlanta runs into the combined sewer pipes and with heavy rain downpours the sewer pipes can’t handle it.  So the combined sewer and stormwater pipes overflow into low-lying communities around Atlanta and are eventually discharged into creeks and rivers.

This video is from 2020 and may have an advertisement the first minute.

This creates a big public health problem because there are pathogens in that water that can make children and people sick. 

The best and least costly infrastructure in Atlanta that can control stormwater is trees. Trees absorb and hold stormwater and keep it out of the combined sewer system.  The more developers ignore the environmental impact of removing trees, that results in more concrete, and all of this combined with an antiquated combined sewer system creates sewage contaminated stormwater in communities.

The latest Tree Protection Ordinance requires developers to only retain the first inch of stormwater on-site when they cut down trees in new developments. But with Climate Change we often get torrential downpours of over one inch of rain that quickly overwhelms the combined sewer and the flooding begins.

“The Atlanta City Council had an opportunity to hold developers accountable for more than one inch, but the development community influenced the city council to leave it at one inch. The Council has the opportunity to once again address combined sewer flooding through the Tree Protection Ordinance by requiring developers to retain trees on their development sites and keep stormwater out of the system,” Echols tells The Streets of Atlanta.

Too Many Problems Wrong with City Planning’s Latest TPO to List 

This article only touches the tip of the iceberg of problems with Commissioner Keane’s TPO draft.  It would take a book to explain all that is wrong with it; you can find more information at The Tree Next Door, A City in the Forest,Trees Atlanta, and other organizations that protect trees or environmental groups.

“Hopefully, the city will listen to the tree community and make the ordinance a Tree Protection Ordinance and not a Tree Removal Ordinance which is what they have now,” Anthony said.

written by Gloria Tatum

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