All posts by Jim Abbot

Our TPO Recommendation For Inman Park

On May 17, 2021, the Atlanta City Council is scheduled to vote on a thoroughly rewritten and expanded Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO).

Tree Watch recommends that the Inman Park Neighborhood Association support this proposed revision, while encouraging the City Council to work with the Department of City Planning to accept a handful of final changes drafted by Trees Atlanta, or in the alternative, make a persuasive case to the public why these suggested changes cannot or should not be adopted.

The reason Tree Watch recommends this support for the new TPO is that it appears highly likely that it will preserve more trees than the current ordinance, better protect the trees that it does preserve, and increase the quality and quantity of tree plantings.

This conclusion is based on conversations with our longtime partner Trees Atlanta, on materials provided by City Planning, and on what Tree Watch Chair Jim Abbot learned while participating in the multiyear planning process formerly known as the Urban Ecology Framework.

Trees Atlanta has done a thorough analysis of the proposed new TPO and come up with some modest but important improvements. We’ve reviewed all 23 standards and amendments, which Trees Atlanta has already forwarded to the City Council. Tree Watch supports them all.

Certain of Trees Atlanta’s recommendations do appear to be more significant than others, and it is these that Tree Watch suggests IPNA focus on:

Improve the TPO’s Overall Goal: The goal to “protect, maintain, and advance a high-quality urban forest within the boundaries of the City and reverse canopy loss over time” is unacceptably nebulous and weakens the current goal of “no net loss” of trees. Tree Watch recommends a measurable goal of increasing and maintaining our tree canopy to 50%.

Expand the Category of Priority Trees and Improve the Protections Afforded Them: A major change in the new TPO is to differentiate between higher and lower quality trees, with corresponding implications for incentives and penalties. The City Council should insist on a more expansive definition of priority trees, e.g., by reducing the size threshold. Also, additional steps should be taken to strengthen the protection of these priority trees, e.g., by calculating replacement at 100% (not 75%) of the trunk diameter, by exempting priority trees from the homeowner allowance for periodic removal, and by restoring appeal rights for priority trees to anyone in the NPU.

Use the Tree Trust Fund for Trees: Over time Atlanta has expanded the permissible uses of the Tree Trust Fund, notably for the acquisition of forested land (good) and as budget-relief for administrative costs, primarily salaries (not good). Moreover, an October 2020 audit by the City, following an investigation by Tree Next Door advocates, found that the departments of City Planning and Parks and Recreation had been misusing the Tree Trust Fund for years. The fund should be used chiefly for the preservation and replanting of trees. Accordingly, stricter limits should be put on the use of the Tree Trust Fund for salaries and other administrative expenses, and the City should commit to a very high level of transparency regarding the fund.

Recommit to Robust Public Participation: On the argument that it will improve efficiency, the new TPO would pare back required postings of tree removals as well as public appeals of arborists’ decisions. It does this, among other ways, by eliminating those yellow signs for early stages of the process, by reducing the amount of time between posting and deadline for appeals, and in some situations eliminating appeals altogether or limiting them to adjoining property owners. The City Council should ask the Department of City Planning to walk back all or some of these changes, using Trees Atlanta’s detailed recommendations as its guide. Why? Because we’ve had 50 years to observe the crucial role the general public can play in environmental protection, and we know it works.

Trees Atlanta has a number of other excellent recommendations on such items as (1) an incentive for reduction of impervious surface, (2) a slightly higher target for site density of trees, (3) getting the most of those so-called pre-application meetings, (4) better tree protection fencing, (5) distinguishing multi-unit housing and institutional projects from commercial projects, (6) parking lot trees, and more.

To read the proposed ordinance and related materials, visit the Department of City Planning website.

To view slides from Trees Atlanta’s four-part webinar evaluating the proposed TPO, click here.

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.

Winter 2021 Tree Planting!

Some 80 new and replacement trees.

Around 80 volunteers.

Magnolias, oaks, redbuds, hornbeams, dogwoods, and fruit trees.

Alta Avenue, Austin Avenue, Euclid Avenue, Sinclair Avenue, and the Little 5 Points Center for Arts & Community.

Thank you, Inman Park. Thank you, Trees Atlanta. Thank you, Center for Arts & Community.

New Tree Ordinance delivered to Council

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:

  1. The tree is associated with a historic location, event, or person;
  2. The tree is estimated to be at least 50 years old, as certified by a registered tree professional;
  3. The tree contributes to a significant view or spatial structure of a setting;
  4. The tree is an exemplary representative of a particular genus or species;
  5. The tree possesses exceptional aesthetic quality; or
  6. 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.

More soon!

Thanks to our volunteers

On Wednesday, October 21, Steve and Marge Hays, Dave Darling, Chuck Young, and Jim Abbot pruned trees in Poplar Circle and along stretches of Hurt, Elizabeth, and Euclid. Below are (L-R) Steve, Dave, and Chuck. Our next pruning workday will be on Wednesday, November 18, at 9:00 AM. Meet at 946 Waverly Way (intersection of Waverly and Hurt).

On Saturday, October 24, Lynn Curtis Koehnemann, Dave Darling, Chuck Young, David Bikoff, and Jim Abbot cleaned and adjusted the granite markers in the Inman Park Arboretum. Below are David and Chuck resetting the marker for a pignut hickory (Carya glabra) along the Freedom Park trail.

Thank you to all of our volunteers!

Pruning workdays, 2020-2021

Beginning on Wednesday, October 21, and continuing on every third Wednesday of the month until Spring 2021, volunteers are invited to help prune trees in Inman Park. Meet on the porch of 946 Waverly Way at 9:00 AM. Bring your own tools, or use a saw and hand pruner provided by Tree Watch. We will be pruning to clear sidewalks and curbs, as well as to promote good structure in your younger trees.

Inman Park Neighborhood Arboretum

Trees Atlanta has put together a virtual tour of the Inman Park Neighborhood Arboretum, which focuses on flowering trees. It’s absolutely fantastic. Click on the photo to go to tour.

Our physical arboretum is, however, in dire need of a great deal of maintenance: replanting trees that have died, replacing markers that have disappeared, cleaning and resetting markers, and the like. Volunteers have stepped forward to help. If you would like to join them, contact us!

Trust

Here you see a scene from the 1960s.

It’s a helicopter spraying DDT — you remember the pesticide DDT, subject of Rachel Carson’s justly famous Silent Spring — above elm trees in an American city. Back then, the thought was that DDT would kill the beetles that were transporting the devastating Dutch elm disease from tree to tree.

With a little human ingenuity, it was thought, cities could rescue the American elm, that graceful tree which once shaded streets all over the United States.

A flying machine! A colorless, tasteless, almost odorless chemical synthesized in a laboratory! What amazing technologies!

What could go wrong? Continue reading Trust

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. Continue reading Is Our Tree Protection Ordinance Fair?