Building boom: Can Atlanta’s tree ‘massacre’ be stopped?

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Longtime Atlanta resident Scottie Johnson loves the water oak on the boundary of her yard.

It provides shade her for 1920s-era home and habitat for local wildlife. But she also worries that eventual redevelopment in her desirable Virginia-Highland neighborhood could doom that tree and dozens of other trees on her street.

“People come in and they are from the suburbs, and they are used to taking these trees down so they just do it,” she said.

But personal indifference to preserving trees doesn't tell the whole story. Advocates say Atlanta is at risk of losing its reputation as a city of trees because local laws make it too easy to poke holes in the urban canopy.

Greg Levine, co-executive director of Trees Atlanta, said the problem is that local tree ordinances don’t protect trees, they just put a price on them.

“Right now the city can’t make (developers) save trees. They can just make them pay the fee,” he said. “We get a phone call about trees being removed almost every single day for the last several months. People are upset about it.”

In Atlanta, it costs developers $100 to take down a tree plus $30 for each inch of the tree’s diameter taken at chest height. So an oak tree measuring 30 inches in diameter would cost $1,000 in “recompense” to take down. But the city’s ordinance allows developers to back off some of that cost by replanting young trees to replace the lost mature trees.

“The current ordinance is a very good ordinance, but it isn’t saving trees,” Levine said. “If you go to Chastain Park, it’s like a massacre.”

Neil Norton, executive director of the Georgia Arborist Association, said the system of debits and credits that make up tree ordinances is not sufficient to preserve the metro area’s tree canopy. Builders can take the trees down and pay the penalty because the payoff is worth it.

“It’s a little bit shocking to see the amount of land clearing that is going on,” he said.

Clear cutting in leafy Decatur

Norton isn’t making stuff up. Residential building permits across the metro area rose sharply in 2015. That’s a boon to local governments still recovering from years of recession, but has slashed gaping holes residential tree canopies.

Decatur Mayor Pat Garrett said the city has received a number of calls from residents concerned about clear cutting for a townhouse development on the city’s north side. When complete, the two-acre development will have 33 units and required the removal of 106 trees, many hardwoods that had stood for decades.

Decatur’s 2-year-old tree ordinance begins with the goal of maintaining the tree canopy covering about 45 percent of the city, according the India Woodson, the city’s arborist.

“No net loss,” she said. “It means just that.”

That’s the goal anyway. As part of the plan, the townhouse developer agreed to replant 67 young trees and pay a penalty of $18,850 for the 25,000 square feet of lost canopy. That’s not much of a bite for a development that prices its townhouses “from the low $600s” — about $20 million for the whole thing.

The penalty goes into the city’s tree bank — a common feature of most tree ordinances in the metro area. But that doesn’t mean the money goes to replanting trees. Woodson said some of it goes to replanting, but the money also goes to educational programs, staff training, pruning of existing trees and other activities.

Garrett said she understands residents’ concerns about the loss of city trees, but the city has to support and guide development to survive.

“It’s definitely a balance in terms of what we can do with allowing some development to happen and doing what we can to protect, preserve and replace tree canopy,” she said.

Bigger houses, fewer trees

Decatur officials tout their ordinance as one of the metro area’s best, but it’s similar to the rest in that it allows the removal of mature trees, replacing them with younger specimens and then waiting. In the meantime, building is booming again.

Last year governments in the Atlanta metro area approved construction permits for more than 30,000 residential units, the most since 2007. The new residential permits are still well below their pre-recession heights, but at an estimated value of $175,000 per unit, the new construction is larger and more expensive than a decade ago, even factoring in inflation.

Levine said the practice of tearing down an old house and building a new one on the same lot is having a big impact on trees because the new houses are significantly larger. Those larger homes not only mean that trees have to be taken down because they are in the way, but other trees have to be removed because their root systems are compromised by the larger footprint.

The threat to Atlanta’s tree canopy is causing people like Norton to think radically. Ordinances in the future may have to identify trees that cannot be removed under any circumstances, he said.

"If the urban forest is important to us in Atlanta, then we have to have rules that protect high-value trees," he said.