Atlanta has a new plan to save trees

Local governments throughout metro Atlanta generally try to balance clear cutting of land for new development by replanting trees elsewhere, but the city of Atlanta is considering a new approach to save existing trees by buying them.

Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, the city’s director of sustainability, said the city’s “green team” is working on a change to Atlanta’s tree ordinance that would allow the city to buy mature trees on private land and give that property to the parks department for “passive” recreation. Essentially, the change would protect portions of the city’s tree canopy from development by creating mini tree preserves.

Under the current city ordinance developers pay a fee, called a “recompense,” in exchange for removing trees on land under development. In theory that money is suppose to support the city’s goal of maintain the existing tree canopy by paying to replant trees elsewhere. But that’s not what happens.

Some of the recompense money goes to planting sapling trees, but Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook said a lot of it goes to plug holes in departmental budgets, a fact he called a "scandal." Shook said developers and conservationists would be better served if the city was more invested in replanting trees.

But Benfield said that is difficult.

“Replantings are done on public space and that’s not always ideal,” she said.

Saplings planted along city streets or parks can grow into nuisance trees that might have to be removed. And the city can’t just pack parks with new tree groves without losing public space.

Benfield said the ordinance change would allow the city to use some of the recompense fees to buy up parcels with trees already on them, preserving them from future development. She said the city would only deal willing sellers — “opportunistic purchases,” she called them.

She said she is coordinating the change in the ordinance with local conservation groups such as Trees Atlanta and the Georgia Conservancy.

The change in the ordinance could come as a relief to activists worried that an increase in in-town redevelopment is threatening the city's urban forest. Across the metro area, neighborhood groups are fighting to preserve forested lots from a spike in residential development. Most of the time they lose.

ExploreRead more about those fights in the AJC Watchdog here.