Tree Preservation and Protection in Atlanta

(Remarks delivered at the March 2021 meeting of the Inman Park Neighborhood Association.)

Atlanta’s current tree protection ordinance (TPO) is two decades old. When it was new, it was considered the most progressive in the country. In Atlanta, trees are regarded as similar to air and water. They’re a kind of common-pool resource considered essential to public health and welfare.

The key principles of tree protection in Atlanta are: (1) owners of private property must preserve their trees, with exceptions relating primarily to tree size and construction; (2) anyone permitted to remove a healthy tree in order to build on a lot must, in the typical situation, replant it or pay the City “recompense” to have it replanted; and (3) the public has a formal role to play in the regulatory process, through a citizen commission empowered to hear appeals from the decisions of city officials.

Over time, despite updates to a few sections, the TPO has become less and less effective at preventing unnecessary and unwise destruction of trees. There are several reasons, of which I will mention only three: (1) the formula that puts a dollar value on trees has not kept pace with the times, with the result that trees are dramatically undervalued in comparison to the ecosystem services that they provide; (2) the law is based on science that is seriously out of date; and (3) enforcement of the law has not been equal to the brisk pace of intown development over the past two decades.

Now, after a two-year planning process (which had its ups and downs), the Department of City Planning has delivered to the City Council a thoroughly rewritten TPO. It’s thought that the council will vote on it this spring. So, for me, there are two questions:

  • Is this a better ordinance than the one that is in effect now?
  • Is there a realistic chance even at this late date of strengthening the City Planning proposal to preserve even more trees?

Reasonable people will disagree on the answers to these two questions.

For what it’s worth, I say, yes, City Planning’s proposal will likely save more trees.

As for making this proposed ordinance more stringent with respect to tree preservation, it’s important to note that the proposal is no longer the sole project of city planners in conversation with various stakeholders. It’s now situated within a political process.

It seems to me that developers might well succeed in pressuring the City Council to ease some of the provisions in this proposal. Moreover, there are councilpersons who have already indicated that they are leery of an overly restrictive law, fearing that investment in their districts, like the investment from which Inman Park has benefited, might be stymied by too much regulation.

In short, the City Council is now at the epicenter of what is sure to be a storm of objections, appeals, advice, and so on, coming from every direction. That’s the reality.

Now, there are many, many new provisions and mechanisms in City Planning’s proposal, so many that anyone who claims to know the exact impact that the new law will have on our tree canopy is either overly sanguine or not being forthright.

Fortunately, Trees Atlanta is undertaking to have the draft TPO assessed by experts who can conduct real-world tests of its effects on actual parcels. That will undoubtedly result in some concrete, practical, and credible suggestions for the City Council to consider.

The Department of City Planning has done some modeling, too, which it has already provided to the council. Whether their examples are truly illustrative of how the new law would work, over time and throughout the city, is hard to say. In any case:

  • On a selected commercial lot, the developer’s recompense payment for trees destroyed would have doubled to $24,000 under this proposal.
  • On one residential lot undergoing construction, three of four so-called priority trees would have been preserved while recompense would have tripled.
  • In a second example — an R3 parcel where the current law allowed the property owner to destroy almost every tree — the new law would have saved all but 2-4 of 18 priority trees, and recompense would have more than doubled.

We could spend forever going through the pluses and minuses of this new tree protection ordinance. I do see at least a couple of openings for highly impactful improvements to the draft TPO, and this list could certainly be lengthened, albeit possibly at the risk of diminishing the focus on the merits of each requested change :

  • Keep the overall goal as no net loss of trees, or maybe set a goal of increasing tree canopy to 50%, instead of adopting the wishy-washy objective of “revers[ing] tree loss over time,” as proposed by City Planning;
  • Expand the definition of a “priority” tree, e.g., by lowering the size threshold, since so much in this new law would hinge on the higher protection afforded to that subset of trees.

To conclude, I believe it’s prudent for everyone who loves and values our trees to recognize that this proposed new ordinance will affect everyone in Atlanta: anyone who breathes air, anyone who drinks water, anyone who has even a single tree on her property, anyone who relies upon a healthy economy to have a job, anyone who uses our parks, and so on.

Let’s don’t allow this opportunity to adopt a better ordinance pass us by. My personal recommendation is that Inman Park focus its attention on the top handful of final changes that could improve this draft, and then plan to move forward together with the rest of Atlanta once the new law is in place, understanding that the City can and should make adjustments as needed over time.

To sign up for a webinar on the proposed TPO, visit the Trees Atlanta website.

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