Torpy at Large: Local park latest front in Atlanta Chainsaw Massacre

Pat Reynolds, left, and Laura Dobson, two Peachtree Hills residents who have fought the removal of trees in a park, stand by a tree marked for destruction. Photo by Bill Torpy

Pat Reynolds, left, and Laura Dobson, two Peachtree Hills residents who have fought the removal of trees in a park, stand by a tree marked for destruction. Photo by Bill Torpy

Whenever a developer’s name sounds vaguely rustic, one word immediately comes to mind: “Timber!”

Case in point is Ashton Woods, which is looking to clear-cut and then squeeze 44 high-end townhomes onto a 4-acre lot in a tree-lined, bungalowed Buckhead neighborhood.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Ashton Woods also seems to be setting an Atlanta precedent by becoming the first private developer to use public park land for private gain. The city has allowed Ashton Woods to cut down half a dozen trees in the adjoining Peachtree Hills Park so the developer can build an underground storm sewer to the creek there.

It will save the project the time and trouble of having to run the sewer line under Peachtree Hills Avenue, potentially tying up traffic. It will also save the developer a bag of money.

Everything on this plan was running smoothly until a local do-gooder named Laura Dobson stuck her nose into the matter and persuaded the Tree Commission to stall what appears to be an inevitability.

Last month, because of Dobson’s prodding, the Tree Commission voted to send the Ashton Woods storm sewer plan back to the parks department’s arborist for review. Ultimately, the arborist will review the plans and recommend whether the developer should run the sewer line under the street or through the park.

But since the City Council overwhelmingly approved the project, and because the neighborhood association signed off on it, the line-through-the-park plan seems like it will ultimately prevail. Besides, Ashton Woods, which is also developing next to the Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Sandy Springs, will probably go to court if the matter can't be worked out to its satisfaction.

Dobson acknowledges that cutting down six trees in the park is just a drop in the bucket. But it was the only battle she could fight, because the park is public land. The real shame is what’s occurring on nearby private land.

In all, Trees Atlanta says more than 800 trees will have been cut down in the immediate area. That is, when you add the Ashton Woods clear-cut to almost 500 trees across the street that will come down to make way for an Isakson Living development.

In all, those two developments will remove 10 percent of the neighborhood's tree canopy, according to Trees Atlanta.

An Ashton Woods PR rep called me back and said she’d try to get me one of the company’s people to interview. I’m still waiting.

The company’s website talks about Atlanta being a “city of forests,” complete with “verdant canopies.” Unless, of course, you live on the 4 acres to be developed by the company.

A schematic of the plan for a luxury over-55 development built by Isakson Living. But the trees shown across Peachtree Hills Avenue will no longer be there, as a neighboring developer, Ashton Woods, plans a clear-cutting. (Caption: Bill Torpy)

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The situation is nothing new. Potential buyers love leafy, verdant canopies. Developers lure them with this image, buy up some land — and then fire up the chain saws.

The new neighbors then move in and enjoy everyone else’s trees.

It's a trend being played out in neighborhoods across the city. People want to move intown but no longer can stand to live in the existing 1,800-square-foot homes. So, those houses are bulldozed, the trees are cut down, and homes on steroids soon fill up the lots. Or several lots are assembled and multifamily developments spring up.

Across the street from the park and the Ashton Woods land, the long-languishing Isakson plan is finally coming back to life. (Yes, the company is run by the brother and son of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.)

Future site of a condominium community in Atlanta for hip — and well-heeled — folks over 55. Photo by Bill Torpy

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Ten years ago — before the economy crashed — the Isaksons proudly announced they would save more than half the trees on the property to build a tony over-55 community. Today, they plan to save a third of the trees, complete with a conservation easement by the stream, as they build about 200 condos approaching $700,000 per unit. They say they will also replant several hundred trees.

Dobson, who appealed the park easement, said neighborhood residents don't have a big beef with the Isaksons. By comparison, they are seen as veritable tree-huggers in cutting down only two-thirds of the trees on their property.

Carl Westmoreland, Ashton Woods’ lawyer, summed it all up for me the other day: “If you can’t cut down trees, you can’t build.”

Atlanta has a tree ordinance that neither developers nor tree-lovers seem to like. As Atlanta gains popularity and as houses often near the million-dollar mark, the cost of whacking a few trees becomes just a rounding error — a fine of $1,000 per tree (if caught) added to the normal permitting fee of $100 per tree and $30 per inch of diameter at the 4.5-foot mark.

Tree Commission Chairman John Rains addressed the conundrum during a recent hearing. “There’s something inherently messed up, for the lack of a better word, for a recompense formula under the ordinance that lets you take away giant, mature, huge canopy trees and replace them with younger trees that have much less canopy. But the ordinance lets you do that.”

Earlier, he noted, “As a personal observation, I am deeply disturbed by the easement approach the City Council has taken.”

Councilman Howard Shook, who represents the area, called the move to run the line through the park a “Sophie’s Choice,” where he said “nobody’s happy.” (Other than the developer, I’d venture to say.)

Ashton Woods did promise to pave the park’s parking lot, paint the field house and kick in $30,000, although I’m told the cash offer came after residents started squawking.

Shook was a sponsor of the city’s tree ordinance several years ago, and he admits the wording can get obtuse. In fact, he said, “Stephen Hawking couldn’t understand the recompense formula.”

That, I suppose, is what happens when you have the competing forces of a development-minded society living in a town that likes to refer to itself as the City in a Forest.

The city’s (relatively) new planning director, Tim Keanes, has said he wants to help rewrite the Tree Ordinance.

Councilman Shook has advice: Good luck.