Is Our Tree Protection Ordinance Fair?

In an earlier post, I laid out some weaknesses in the revised tree ordinance that the Department of City Planning released to the public in March.

On Thursday, June 25, the City Council’s Community Development/Human Resources Committee held a working session on the draft ordinance. The chair is Matt Westmoreland, and Amir Farokhi is a member.

I am pleased to say that in its report to the committee, City Planning announced several pending changes that would be improvements over the March draft. For example, City Planning is now proposing to use the same standards for public and private trees, enforced by arborists gathered into a single office. To give another example, the earlier draft’s overly complicated “tree significance” scheme will be greatly simplified. And there’s much more, as you can see from the graphic above.

As the City actually releases its new language, I will keep you updated. We can expect to see a new draft in late August or early September, and I believe the City hopes to vote on a final version before the end of the year.

In any case, for now, I want to turn to a simple question:

Is our current approach to tree protection, even when we update it for the first half of the 21st century, going to get the job done? If you’re interested, read on.


Irfan & Sukumar, “Watch how the climate could change in these US cities by 2050,” Vox, May 24, 2019

Consider that by 2050,  Atlanta could well be an oven, an oven with the dial turned up. Of course, nothing says that has to happen. We can do something about it. But we have to act now.

We don’t have to experience 23 days in the year — up from just one now — when it feels like 105 degrees or more in the shade, as the Union of Concerned Scientists is projecting could happen.

We don’t have to draw near the fatal tipping point —  when sweat will no longer evaporate from our skin. Until very recently, it was thought that we had decades until murderous heat was a common occurrence in some regions of the world. Now we know that it’s already happening.

Areas in the U.S. Southeast where heat/humidity mixtures have driven temperatures to ‘wet-bulb’ readings of 31 degrees C (equivalent to 125 degrees F on the “real feel” heat index). Green markers show one occurrence from 1979-2017; orange, 3; red, 10.

We don’t have to be terrified that a brutal heat wave will coincide with a massive blackout.

What can we do? We can radically rethink how we preserve and replenish our tree canopy in Atlanta. Why? Because trees are a simple, cost-effective way to cool our city, and if we don’t take steps to cool our city, we will suffer.

The How and Why of Tree Protection in Atlanta

In Atlanta, we protect trees by treating them as a common pool resource. Simply put, you own the trees on your property, but because your trees are so important to the entire population of Atlanta, you’re limited in what you can do with them.

The law says you can’t remove a tree without a permit from the City (unless it’s quite small). You can’t “top” a tree to reduce its height. You can’t prune a limb by cutting it flush with the trunk.

We have a tree protection ordinance that gives the rest of us considerable control over how you use your own property.

Again, the rationale for limiting your right to do with your property as you see fit, is that without trees, our city will be rendered all but uninhabitable: unbearable heat, unbreathable air, undrinkable water.

The benefits that trees provide — affecting temperature, rainfall, water purity, clean air, noise buffering, traffic slowing, wildlife habitat, human health (physical and mental), and more — are called environmental or ecosystem services.


In 2017, researchers announced the results of their analysis of urban forest ecosystem services in 10 megacities (at least 10 million inhabitants) around the world. Median tree cover in those cities is 21%, with potential for another 19% tree cover in the city.

The dollar value of those benefits, the scientists say, is roughly $500 million annually to each city. Planting more trees, they add, could raise that to $1 billion annually for each city.

For context, the City of Atlanta’s proposed budget for 2021 is $2.23 billion in operating funds. And Atlanta has more than twice the amount of tree cover in comparison to the group of ten cities in that study.

Do the math! Without our tree canopy, Atlanta’s budget would have to be much higher than $2.23 billion to keep you alive and comfortable. And so your taxes would have to be much higher, too.

So What’s the Problem, Jim?

The difficulty with our current approach to tree protection, friends, is this:

  • No one pays the owner of a tree for the ecosystem services that it provides to the city as a whole; while
  • She alone bears the costs of maintaining her tree in good health, removing it when it dies or becomes dangerous, and replanting it to replace the benefits it had been providing to Atlanta; even though
  • The owner of that tree may be struggling to keep a roof over her head and food on her table.

It is crucially important that everyone understand the implications of this fact: eighty percent (80%) of our city’s trees are located on private property.

Some tree owners can easily bear the costs associated with a shade tree. Many can’t.

One of the bids to remove this tree in Gordon Park was $5,847. Do you have that much money lying around? Do you think every homeowner in Atlanta does?


Our current approach to tree protection relies on authorizing “tree cops” to enforce a law that imposes an unfair and unsustainable burden on many of our neighbors in Atlanta.

Our current approach to tree protection tends to encourage people to think of trees as money-pits and hassles, not as desirable amenities.

Our current approach to tree protection tends to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Our current approach to tree protection has not stopped the steady loss of tree canopy in Atlanta.

What would a different approach look like? Consider that the State of Georgia has not one but two laws that use the tax system to encourage property owners to manage their land for ecosystem services: the Forest Land Protection Act and the Conservation Use Assessment Covenant.

Is it time for Atlanta to look at that? It’s past time. Unless and until we make it possible for people to value trees at their true worth, we cannot succeed in avoiding killer heat, and everything that will come along with it.

3 thoughts on “Is Our Tree Protection Ordinance Fair?”

      1. It would be great if TreeWatch and the Tax Relief Committee could work together on this effort.

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