Torpy at Large: Atlanta tree protection ordinance dying on the vine?

Trees sit below the Atlanta skyline as cars drive by on June 12, 2019. Cities across metro Atlanta are rewriting tree ordinances to protect Atlanta’s diminishing tree canopy, which is threatened by clear-cutting for new builds in and around the city. (credit: Christina Matacotta/

Trees sit below the Atlanta skyline as cars drive by on June 12, 2019. Cities across metro Atlanta are rewriting tree ordinances to protect Atlanta’s diminishing tree canopy, which is threatened by clear-cutting for new builds in and around the city. (credit: Christina Matacotta/

In a little more than the past six years, the city of Atlanta, aka “The City in a Forest,” has had more than 90,000 trees cut down.

That’s what happens when a town becomes popular. Trees fall fast as development rolls.

For the past year, the city has paid a consultant to take stock of our citified forest and come up with a workable tree protection ordinance. It is not going well if you listen to those involved.

Last week, residents expected the city and its consultants to roll out the first draft of the tree protection ordinance at a meeting at the Atlanta Technical College. The presentation was panned worse than an Adam Sandler movie. City officials retreated, licked their wounds and canceled the next night’s presentation scheduled for the north side.

The fledgling plan was that bad, residents and tree proponents say.

“People came out to hear the city say, ‘This is how we want to save the canopy,’” said deLille Anthony, a Buckhead resident and co-founder of a group called The Tree Next Door. “Instead, they heard, ‘Here’s how we’re going to charge more to cut down some trees and less for others.’”

She described the reaction as “feisty, put out, disgusted, at the end of our ropes. There was a feeling of, ‘You got nothing here.’”

Kathryn Kolb, a naturalist who lives in East Atlanta, complained that the city is talking about removing the appeals process, which allows residents to fight the taking of trees in their neighborhoods. “You need checks and balances,” she said. “They want to take that away.”

Kathryn Kolb says swaths of old urban forest remain in the backyards of older homes in Atlanta’s neighborhoods. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

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The city’s study, the “Urban Ecology Framework,” has cost more than $700,000 so far and could top out at $1.2 million. It has also drawn dissatisfaction from residents, community leaders, groups such as Trees Atlanta, and even members of the city’s Tree Commission, the city’s board that hears appeals regarding trees to be toppled.

Tree Commission members at a meeting Wednesday complained that those crafting the new ordinance have paid little heed to their concerns.

“Not to be asked our advice on technical matters is insulting and troubling,” said Elizabeth Ward, a member of that board.

Susanne Blam, also on the commission, agreed. “Meanwhile, the chainsaws are going. We ought to have a billboard with a rolling ticker, ‘This many acres lost. This many trees.’”

Signs of progress. The yellow sign indicates a planned tree-cutting, while the white sign indicates an appeal of that plan. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

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Trees sometimes fall in big bunches, like when they cut 800 at Bobby Jones Golf Course (it is state of Georgia land, they don't abide by local ordinances) and 200 in Grant Park to build a monstrous parking deck. But more so than not, it's two or three here, four or five there as developers clear lots to build spanking new homes — From the 500s!

Currently, the tree ordinance doesn’t protect trees, it basically just sets a price to chop them. An oak tree with a 30-inch diameter at chest height costs about $1,000. And if you can convince the city that the targeted tree is dead, dying or hazardous, then it’s no charge. And it’s funny how often trees in development plans are deemed the latter.

Areas of land along DeKalb Avenue are now seen as prime sites for townhome living. This construction site is up the road from the latest tree-cutting controversy. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

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At a meeting in August where City Council members discussed the issue, several builders stood to say tree ordinances tie their hands — making it more costly to build — and infringe on property rights.

Adam Brock, VP of Brock Built Homes, told the council he does a lot of work on the west side.

“I haven’t heard a single comment, ‘Protect more trees.’ It’s people first, create homes people can afford to live in with a working wage,” he said. “Increasing the cost burden on developers will not do that.”

I looked at his company’s website. I found homes starting “From the low 400s.” They went up from there.

His view of affordable differs from mine.

This property used to be a smallish mansion and four acres of trees and landscaping in the Tuxedo Park neighborhood. Now it’s a massive undertaking, the ongoing struggle of infill in Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

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Also, the new ordinance allows each resident to cut down a tree each year without a permit. That apparently was added after Councilwoman Marci Collier Overstreet said at a meeting that residents in her southwest Atlanta district were worried about trees crashing down on their homes and didn't want some government bureaucracy telling them what to do with their land.

Councilman Matt Westmoreland doesn’t agree with the one-freebie-a-year policy.

Westmoreland is trying to forge some kind of middle ground that would “strengthen the ordinance, grow our tree canopy and build density” in housing.

Plans call for swaths of forested land to be saved and new multifamily housing to be squeezed in along busy corridors.

But, once again, most of the trees are on single-family lots, getting whacked day after day.

A canopy study found that about 47 percent of the city is covered by trees, but that was in 2014. There’s been a lot of construction since then. Another canopy study is waiting to be released. The city hopes one day to have a 50 percent canopy.

I called Atlanta planning czar Tim Keane, and he said this issue is a lot more complicated than I’m making it.

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Keane said it’s bigger than just the tree protection ordinance. “We have done an unprecedented study of nature in Atlanta and how we protect the canopy. The last quarter of that is the tree ordinance,” he told me.

However, he added, the tree activists involved in the ordinance effort “won’t let it happen. It’s an interesting zero-sum game. They can only win if everyone else loses. It’s only their perspective that matters.”

Keane said the current tree ordinance, created in 2001, has long been unpopular with just about everyone. He said the city started trying to rework the ordinance in 2007 and tinkered with it for seven years until the City Council ultimately put the study on a shelf.

He said the meetings tend to be like the movie “Ground Hog Day.” The city keeps trotting out ideas and the crowd keeps beating them down.

Asked when something concrete will be proposed, he said, “This will take as long as it takes. But I’m less optimistic now.”