Last month, the Atlanta Department of City Planning delivered a newly revised Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) to the City Council. The Community Development/Human Services Committee, chaired by Matt Westmoreland, has the initial oversight and responsibility for the proposed TPO.
While the basic principles and overall approach to tree protection are unchanged — Atlanta regards its trees as essential resources for safeguarding our health and promoting our welfare, so it regulates not just trees on public property but also many privately owned trees — there are in fact many changes in this proposal.
In some cases, the changes appear to be obvious improvements. In others, the new rules and procedures are quite technical and their potential impact, for good or bad, is uncertain.
Here is a preliminary attempt to capture just a portion of the content in the 64-page draft document.
> I am a homeowner with a dying tree in my yard. I think it may need to be taken down. Has the process changed?
No, the process is the same. If the tree is large enough to be subject to the ordinance, you need to apply for a permit to take down any dead, dying, or hazardous (DDH) tree. For most tree species, that means 6″ or wider in diameter at breast height (called DBH). For pines, it’s 12″ DBH or wider. Assuming you hire a tree service to assist you, the tree service itself can apply for a permit on your behalf. If you wish to request an inspection by a city arborist before you contact a service, the contact information and access to online system is available here.
As before, you will not be required to replant or pay any recompense for removing a DDH tree. One proposed change, however, is to allocate part of the Tree Trust Fund to assist low-income homeowners with the assessment and removal of DDH trees. In those cases, the city will replant.
> I am a homeowner with a tree in my yard that is perfectly healthy, but I just don’t like it! Can I remove it?
Yes, this proposal would make that newly possible in our city, subject to certain conditions. In every three-year period, you will be allowed to remove, without any requirement to replant, one so-called “non-priority” tree of any size or two trees with a combined DBH of 18” or less. However, to be eligible, your property must have a minimum number of trees growing on it (known as site density).
Priority versus non-priority trees — this is an innovation in the proposed ordinance. In brief, priority trees are those trees that are in good or better condition and meet certain size and species criteria. For example, suppose you have a healthy white oak or American beech growing in a spot of your backyard where you’d like to put in some tomato plants or begonias. If the oak tree is smaller than 18″ DBH (which is the same as 56.5″ in circumference), you can apply for a permit to cut the tree down. Three years later, you can pick another, similar tree and seek a permit to remove it, too, as long as the your property would continue to meet or exceed the threshold for density of trees.
> I’m building a home on my property. Are there new rules?
Yes, there is a new framework, and Tree Watch will have to wait on people with the requisite technical expertise to evaluate this complex feature of the proposal.
One innovation is to move arborist evaluation to the beginning of the plan review process. Moreover, pre-application conferences with the arborist will be encouraged to help owner understand preservation requirements and discuss options with the arborist. A second phase of the new procedure will involve reviewing and consolidating existing conceptual reviews to meet the needs of both the customer and city staff.
In another significant innovation, tree preservation will be uncoupled from zoning setbacks and based on lot sizes, with increasing preservation requirements for larger lots. The draft ordinance envisions two preservation options for single-family and duplex development:
- Preserve a certain percentage of the priority trees growing on site. Percentage is based on lot size. If this standard is met, replacement planting and recompense is reduced by 50%.
- If the first standard is not possible , the following standard is available: the development will be allowed a limited area of site disturbance, roughly equivalent to currently allowed maximum lot coverage. This standard is not eligible for tree replacement/recompense reduction.
> I’m a person who LOVES trees, and I want to see them preserved. Will this new ordinance help me do that?
Yes, there are improvements on that score. To take one example, the proposed TPO contains a new category of heritage trees. Trees can be nominated by a property owner or with his/her permission for special protection status based on their historical or cultural significance. Such heritage trees cannot be removed without authorization from the Tree Conservation Commission. In addition, the city will provide periodic inspections and arboricultural advice.
Candidates for heritage status must satisfy three or more of these criteria:
- The tree is associated with a historic location, event, or person;
- The tree is estimated to be at least 50 years old, as certified by a registered tree professional;
- The tree contributes to a significant view or spatial structure of a setting;
- The tree is an exemplary representative of a particular genus or species;
- The tree possesses exceptional aesthetic quality; or
- The tree is in good or better condition.
Over the next months, you will no doubt have the opportunity to read more about this new ordinance. Planning Commissioner Tim Keane is saying that his office’s proposal is a clear improvement over our existing ordinance, even if stakeholders such as tree activists, developers, and homeowners will find different elements of it objectionable.
As far as Inman Park Tree Watch is concerned, we would welcome an improvement in our regulations, in enforcement of the law, and in funding for basic governmental operations affecting our trees. The key point here is that there exists widespread support for maintaining a large and healthy tree canopy in the City of Atlanta. A good law can help, but it can’t do all the work. Government, industry, philanthropists, advocacy groups, neighborhoods, and individuals should all embrace the goal of ensuring that Atlanta remains the City in the Forest.