In the spring of 1999, Elizabeth Chesnut and Mary Shaw moved into their new home on a tree-lined street on the southeast side of Atlanta. They loved the front and back yards, which featured two red oaks, a poplar, a Catalpa and several dogwoods. The abundance of trees was a big factor in their decision to buy a home in the area.
“It is a beautiful neighborhood. It is green and we didn’t want to feel like we were living in Atlanta’s asphalt forest,” Chesnut said. But they quickly learned the perils of living in Atlanta’s massive tree canopy. Just one month after they moved in, after years of drought, a heavy rain washed the roots of a 125-year-old red oak too close to the surface and the weight of its canopy brought it crashing down on their house, leaving them displaced for a year.
Trees offer many benefits — clean air, energy conservation, reduction of greenhouse gases — but living in metro Atlanta, which has one of the largest and highest-quality urban forests of any major metro area in the U.S., brings unique challenges when environmental and human impacts turn beloved trees into a potential hazard.
For residents, removing a tree or watching one fall can be emotional and expensive. Recent headlines have focused on the loss of trees due to rampant development, but each year thousands of trees are also lost in weather-related incidents resulting in property value losses of more than $10 million per year in Georgia, according to one expert from the University of Georgia.
Chesnut and Shaw have spent thousands of dollars to manage the trees on their property over the past 20 years, six of which they ended up losing. “We are part of the community in Atlanta that has seriously decreased the tree canopy, but not on purpose,” Chesnut said.
Growth in regulations
About 200 years ago — when other metro areas were well underway — metro Atlanta was still undisturbed forest, said Kathryn Kolb, a master naturalist and executive director of EcoAddendum. “Our city was built out much later than other major cities and less densely, so we have remnants of the older forest of our region all throughout metro Atlanta. A lot of that is in people’s backyards, and they don’t realize it,” said Kolb, adding that almost 80% of Atlanta’s tree canopy lies in areas that are zoned for single-family residences.
Trees are healthiest when they are growing in a connected canopy as they do in the forest, but several waves of development, which began in the mid-1800s and most recently resurged in the 2000s, have dramatically altered the landscape in metro Atlanta. Add changing environmental conditions (heat, drought, storms) and human impacts (improper pruning, root damage) and healthy trees start to decline.
From 2001 to 2017, Gwinnett, Cherokee and Forsyth each experienced a 17% decrease in tree cover. Tree cover in Fulton decreased by 16% compared to 11% in Cobb, 10% in Fayette and 8% in DeKalb, according to data from Global Forest Watch.
Most municipalities have laws that regulate the removal of trees, but they vary depending on the area and may not apply to private property. Atlanta’s tree ordinance (currently under revision) requires a permit to remove certain private-property trees, while in the city of Marietta, any tree on private property can be cut down without a permit.
Tree services typically handle the permitting process for customers when it is required, but that can bring a different set of issues. Residents in College Park and Brookhaven recently reported paying a tree service to assess the health of 60- to 100-year-old pine trees only to later discover the company had cut down healthy trees and was selling the timber for additional profit, said Kolb, who suggests consulting an arborist for any tree concerns.
Violating a tree ordinance can result in hefty fees, such as one property owner in a south Fulton neighborhood who was handed $7,000 in fines and $9,500 in fees — more than a third of the property’s fair market value — for illegally removing trees without proper permits. The appeal, filed in April to the City of Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission, asked for the fines and fees to be reduced or eliminated and proposed a tree replacement plan of 13 trees planted along the property’s fence line.
Issues for homeowners
When a tree falls on its own rather than being cut, a different set of rules apply. Removing a fallen tree doesn’t require a permit, but where it falls dictates who is responsible for its removal. Property damage from a falling tree is generally covered by homeowners insurance, though the process can take months, depending on the circumstances.
Last month, Megan Talbot was surprised to get a call from a neighbor telling her to come home. Another neighbor’s tree had just come crashing down in her backyard. “It destroyed our shed and we are just really lucky we had a big tree that prevented it from falling on the house,” said Talbot, who lives just off I-285 in DeKalb County. “I love living among the trees and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but at the same time, I want people to take care of what is on their property.”
The tree had been leaning at a 45-degree angle, though the property owner, who was out of town at the time, said it was not considered a hazard. Talbot wasn’t sure what to do.
After it fell, the neighbor offered to remove the tree from Talbot’s property, and she decided to purchase a new shed rather than file an insurance claim. In the end, there was an upside. “We were having conversations about what we could do to mitigate further damage, and it brought us a lot closer together,” Talbot said of the neighbors involved.
Dave Rivell, partner at Pennsylvania-based Element Risk Management, said when trees fall, it is normal to want to assign blame, but only in rare cases of extreme negligence — such as a partially fallen tree that the owner fails to remove despite being directed to do so — would an insurance claim be impacted. If a tree owner was found liable for a fallen tree, his or her liability insurance may cover the damages, said Michal Brower, a spokesperson for State Farm.
Rivell has talked to many homeowners who believe insurance companies will cover the cost to remove dead or dying trees before they fall, but they are out of luck, he said. “There has to be an insurable event for insurance to kick in in the first place,” he said.
Caring for trees
Since that tragic experience 20 years ago, Chesnut said they have taken a proactive approach to tree care. “We think about what we can do to support the health of our trees, and we want to maintain the canopy that we have,” she said. For each tree they have lost, they have planted a new one.
That is one of the best things residents can do to preserve and enjoy Atlanta’s tree canopy, said local arborists.
Read More: 20 Atlanta trees you should know
“A lot of people forget about the trees until they are in trouble,” said Rick Deckman, arborist for the city of Marietta. By the time he is called to look at trees, it is often too late. Roots damaged by chemicals in pesticides and improper pruning can weaken trees over time, Deckman said.
Urban trees are at particular risk, said Christie Bryant, president of the Georgia Arborist Association Inc. Without the competition they would find in the forest, city trees suck in all the light and air they want, growing a massive canopy and becoming top heavy. A proper trim every three to five years could help prevent future issues, Bryant said.
Mature trees, such as those found across metro Atlanta, may also be more prone to problems like Sudden Branch Drop Syndrome — massive branches dropping from trees on hot summer days — for reasons that are still unclear to arborists. Dogwood Anthracnose is another disease that afflicts many local trees, and Bryant said she’s never seen a cypress in metro Atlanta that isn’t diseased in some way.
“We are so spoiled by the amount of our trees. We think, it is just a tree. It doesn’t have the significance it should have,” Bryant said. “We are finally coming to a point where they are not just trees. Trees are our natural resources.”
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