Decatur grapples with protecting trees without punishing homeowners

This is where the development called “Hargrove” will get built with the initial homeowners expected to begin closing in December. Despite appearances Decatur’s arborist says the developer is adhering to the city’s tree ordinance by saving a handful of trees (to the right and left in this photo) and planning to replant a 45 percent canopy. Bill Banks for the AJC

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This is where the development called “Hargrove” will get built with the initial homeowners expected to begin closing in December. Despite appearances Decatur’s arborist says the developer is adhering to the city’s tree ordinance by saving a handful of trees (to the right and left in this photo) and planning to replant a 45 percent canopy. Bill Banks for the AJC

Residents worry ordinance changes would lead to more trees being cut down

Some Decatur residents are concerned the city’s updated tree ordinance has gone off the rails.

Decatur leaders have been reexamining how they aim to protect trees, but a few last-minute changes have left some confused and miffed by the process. During a lengthy Monday meeting, residents who want stringent protections for trees expressed their issues with the city’s plan.

The changes included allowing homeowners to chop down trees if they’re below a tree canopy threshold, a measure of how much of a property is shaded by trees. The increased attention also brought extra criticism to how the city plans to fine residents and developers who aren’t able — or willing — to replace trees they cut down.

“This policy can be summed up quite quickly: it’s ability to pay,” resident Ash Miller said during public comment. “If you can afford it, you don’t have to plant trees to meet your canopy goal.”

Anyone who violates the ordinance could incur thousands of dollars in penalties for removing protected trees, and residents argue that developers can just pass on the extra cost.

Despite a lengthy debate, the City Commission voted unanimously to move the draft forward to a committee for a last round of edits. But city leaders said residents brought up good points regarding whether the new policy could disproportionately affect less affluent residents.

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“It’s going to make it where a regular middle-class homeowner will not be able to do a substantial renovation of their house to sell it for profit, but a wealthy developer can come in and do whatever they want,” Commissioner Lesa Mayer said. “That’s problematic. That’s inequitable.”

Mayer and other commissioners indicated they would look at trying to address those concerns, primarily how to implement a hefty canopy loss fee, but it could delay an update that’s already taken most of 2021 to accomplish.

Incentivize tree protection

Decatur already has one of metro Atlanta’s more rigorous tree canopy laws on the books, but revising the policy has been named one of the city’s top goals for this year.

Many of the proposed changes are not controversial. If adopted as written, the update would eliminate a clause that allows anyone to cut down three trees every 18 months with no questions asked. In many situations, if a tree is cut down, two trees will have to be planted to replace it. It also prohibits developers from scraping entire lots for developments and allows for zoning variances to prohibit tree loss.

The policy will also prompt the city to hire another city arborist to keep up enforcement and facilitate Decatur’s goal of reaching a 65% tree canopy coverage over the entire city. It’s currently at 57%.

“The whole purpose of this is to reduce the number of people who are cutting down trees,” Commissioner George Dusenbury said during the meeting. “And I think this tree ordinance goes a long way in that direction.”

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However, critics, including Mayer, said the draft preserves a harsh canopy loss fee that will stop homeowners from making changes to their properties, while developers will just pass on the extra cost.

“Just for the record, what this is is forced compliance for people with less means,” Mayer said.

‘Not everybody is going to be happy, but hopefully the trees will’

The City Commission was initially going to vote on the tree ordinance update Monday, but a recent determination from the city attorney prompted last-second changes and delays.

City Attorney Bryan Downs said the tree ordinance update acts as a zoning policy, so it needed to go before the city’s planning commission.

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Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon said the ordinance’s changes, especially a new clause requiring property owners to preserve 75% of their tree canopy, will change how developers design projects in Decatur.

“It’s going to be more expensive to develop property. Just to get in the door, you’re going to have to pay more to get the surveys, the assessments and ultimately prescriptions where you’re trying to save trees or build around trees,” he said.

Before sending the draft to the planning commission, the City Commission voted to add a clause that limits alternate compliance — i.e. paying money into a tree bank — to a last resort for property owners.

The latest draft will go before the city’s planning commission on Jan. 11, and will then head back before the Decatur City Commission on Jan. 18.

“Not everybody is going to be happy, but hopefully the trees will,” City Arborist Kay Evanovich said.

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