The formerly shady plaza outside Atlanta’s Federal Reserve building after 12 elms were cut down. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: By Bill Torpy / AJC
Photo: By Bill Torpy / AJC

OPINION: The felled feeling of the Fed cutting down trees and Atlanta

You can’t fight City Hall. And it’s even tougher to fight the feds, even when you ARE City Hall.

The city of Atlanta recently got a stiff arm from the U.S. government in the form of the Federal Reserve, that big marble building at 10th and Peachtree streets where kids go on tours and walk out with bags of shredded money.

Except now the feds are shredding trees instead of cash.

Let me explain.

The whole episode began last year when officials at the Atlanta Fed contacted the city arborist to request permission to take down 12 elm trees planted out in front. The trees were located in the Fed’s Jack Guynn Plaza, a shady respite with benches in the increasingly built-up Midtown.

The city initially gave the feds the OK to take down the dozen mature elms and replace them with four small redbud trees. But two women who live nearby — Tovah Choudhury and Sudie Nolan-Cassimatis — thought that was a terrible idea and appealed the decision to the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission.

“It was almost like a mini-park, a break in all the concrete,” said Choudhury, a stay-home mother of three who last year got involved in fighting Atlanta’s wholesale destruction of trees when a developer tried to clear-cut a lot in her neighborhood to build a big home. They won a partial victory that time.

“We have all these wonderful trees in our neighborhood taken down,” she said. “It’s death by 1,000 cuts here.”

When the plaza outside Atlanta’s Federal Reserve building still had mature elms. The trees were cut down in January 2020. Photo by the Saporta Report
Photo: The Saporta Report

Nolan-Cassimatis, who also has three kids, sometimes walks with her crew through the Fed’s property. Then one day she saw the orange X’s on the trees that indicate an appointment with an ax. The two women filed an appeal to the Tree Commission, although Choudhury wasn’t overly optimistic. “We thought, ‘This was the Fed. There’s no way we’re going to win against the Fed.’ ”

Except they did. They argued their piece before the Tree Commission and a row of Fed officials came to the meeting, contending the trees obstruct some of their security cameras that keep watch on the property.

I’ve heard it before. When government says they are doing something for “security,” who are you to argue? In fact, if you do, you are somehow on the side of insecurity, which is the realm of criminals and even terrorists.

Somehow, the ladies prevailed. In December, after two hours of debate and deliberation, the Tree Commission voted 4-3 against the cutdown. The Feds were supposed to return with a Plan B. Choudhury and Nolan-Cassimatis were so thrilled by defeating Goliath that they stopped by the Fed to shoot a selfie by the no-longer threatened trees.

Tovah Choudhury, left, and Sudie Nolan-Cassimatis outside the Federal Reserve of Atlanta after they won an appeal to stop the trees from getting cut down. Photo from Sudie Nolan-Cassimatis
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

However …

One day in January, Nolan-Cassimatis was heading to a meeting (she helps vets get jobs). “And as I drove past the Fed, it was weird, I saw too much sky,” she said. “I drove back around and was like, ‘Oh My God, they cut down every tree.’ It was shocking.”

The city, too, was shocked. The arborist called for more than $16,000 in fines and recompense fees. Chet Tisdale, a retired environmental lawyer who is on the Tree Commission, announced he wanted the city to investigate which federále OK’d the cutdown. He thought some punishment was in order and a message needed to be sent.

“There needs to be something that says you just can’t cut down trees and pay a fine and be done with it,” Tisdale said. This type of activity, he said, showed there needs to be a tougher tree ordinance, something the city has been working on for a good long while.

As to the Fed’s argument that they are not beholden to a city’s laws, Tisdale said, “They say they’re not subject to the process because they are federal property. But I think once they made the application, they waived their right to not be subject (to Atlanta’s laws).”

Michael J. Chriszt, the Fed’s spokesman, emailed me to say that security was the key here and the Fed’s other option was to restrict the public from the property.

A version of what the plaza outside the Federal Reserve of Atlanta will look like. From the Federal Reserve of Atlanta
Photo: Federal Reserve of Atlanta

“We listened to the feedback we received from the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission and incorporated that feedback into our plan by matching the number of replacement trees with the number of trees we needed to remove,” he wrote. “There is no net loss in the number of trees on our property.”

They will also plant eight crape myrtles, which are like fancy shrubs. In fact, crape myrtles don’t count as replacement trees according to city code.

Still, the Fed feels good about it. “We have satisfactorily resolved this issue” with the city, Chriszt wrote, adding that the Fed told City Hall in a letter last month that they were moving ahead with their plan.

I didn’t see the letter but can sum it up: “Thanks, City Hall. But, respectfully, please get lost.”

Atlanta planning czar Tim Keane told me the city’s lawyers determined that federal buildings are not only exempt from the tree ordinance, they are exempt from zoning matters.

“The next logical question is why did they put in an application?” he asked, apparently rhetorically.

Choudhury and Nolan-Cassimatis surmise that the feds went through the city’s arborist as a PR stunt to say they were just like everyone else. That is, until they lost their case.

“It seems like a bizarre flouting of the system,” Nolan-Cassimatis said.

Sign on Jack Guynn Plaza. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

Choudhury was surprised at how the city will have to slink away from the fray on this one and half-jokingly said she’d like a refund of the fee they had to pay when appealing.

“I’d like to know why they took our $75,” she said. “They had no business taking our money and wasting everyone’s time.”

I guess they could chalk it up as a course in civics. It’s cheaper than night class at Georgia Perimeter College.

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