WHAT IF local and national companies could buy carbon+ credits from tree projects (preservation projects and planting projects) in Atlanta, thereby investing private money efficiently and reliably into local projects that help keep Atlanta green, equitable, and livable? (Guess what, they could buy such credits, if we were willing to do the work to make it happen.)
WHAT IF there were urban forestry programs that cities like Atlanta could opt into, such that major health insurance companies would agree to slight reductions in insurance rates for policyholders located in those communities who are participating in the programs? After all, there is more and more scientific evidence that tree canopy protects and promotes human health, especially in urban and rural counties with the lowest socioeconomic status. (This is a tough one, because it’s not being done yet anywhere, but in principle it should work.)
WHAT IF Atlanta taxpayers were offered a “treebate” on their water & sewer bills for planting a tree, as is done in Portland? (No-brainer.)
WHAT IF Southern Company were to follow the lead of the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, which provides ratepayers up to 10 free trees per customer and over 30 varieties to choose from? (Because this is Georgia, not California? That’s not an acceptable answer.)
WHAT IF we actually used the tools available to us to measure and record the tree cover on each tax parcel in our city? Might that information be useful to devising rebates and tax breaks for support of land use that optimizes ecosystem services to Atlanta? (Is it laziness or lack of interest or lack of imagination or what?)
WHAT IF we were to take the time necessary to actually sit down and actually think about how to link healthcare funding, public health funding, infrastructure funding, and all other potential streams of money to the one thing we can be sure will help prevent our children and grandchildren from suffering through entire months when the air is too hot and too dirty to go outside?
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.
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 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.
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.
What could be more mind-numbingly boring than reading a blog post about a local ordinance?
And yet here I am, asking you to do so, because the City of Atlanta is revising its tree protection ordinance, and that’s a big, big deal if you’re fond of drinking clean water, breathing clean air, and not being burned to a crisp every summer.
Anyone still reading? Okay, here’s what I’m going to try to do.
Tell you something about how Atlanta currently protects trees.
Set out the rudiments of the proposed changes to our law.
Explain how you can help ensure the best possible outcome of this process.
Part 1: Tree Protection in Atlanta
In 1977 — the year UGA lost to Pitt in the Sugar Bowl, Jimmy Carter became president, the L5P Community Pub opened for business, and Bobby Cox was hired to manage the Braves — Atlanta adopted a law regulating tree removals. It’s been revised several times since then. The principle of the tree protection ordinance (TPO) could not be simpler: most of Atlanta’s trees may be privately owned, but they’re also a public good like clean air. The basic mechanism to protect Atlanta’s trees is simple, too: require those who remove trees to seek approval from the city and then replant on site or, if that’s not possible, to pay into a fund that can provide money for replanting of trees elsewhere in the city.
In a sense, everything else about the ordinance is just details. The fundamental principle and mechanism have been in place for years. In a different sense, everything has changed since the TPO’s early days. Here are just a few of the things that are different today versus yesterday:
The city has fewer trees than in 1977.
The metro area has many more people and much more pavement than in 1977.
Average temperatures are hotter, due to climate change and the urban heat island effect.
The required payment (“recompense”) for tree-removal-without-replanting no longer appears to function as a strong incentive to preserve as many trees as possible or as a strong deterrent to unnecessary removal of trees. For some developers, it’s just the cost of doing business.
Enforcement of the ordinance by the city is hampered by inadequate staffing and bureaucratic inefficiencies.
Money in the Tree Trust Fund has been siphoned off for many ancillary purposes, e.g., to pay the salaries of city arborists.
The growing complexity and spotty enforcement of the law increasingly frustrate and befuddle the public.
We know a LOT more about the ecology of urban forests and the ecosystem benefits of trees than we used to know.
Atlanta has lost and continues to lose trees in the years since the ordinance was enacted. A 2001 report by American Forests, focusing on the center of the wider metropolitan area, found that heavy tree cover (>50% of land surface) had declined from 47.5% in 1974 to 26.4% in 1996. In 2012, two researchers found that over the five-year period they chose to study, Atlanta lost trees despite the ordinance. Georgia Tech’s tree canopy research indicates that as of 2014, about 48% of the city has tree canopy.
Is Atlanta’s existing TPO a dud, a failure, a travesty? Not at all. Despite everything, it’s done some great work for us. Without it, we would certainly be in much worse shape. But we do need a reset.
Part 2: Draft TPO 1.0
The city released its first draft of a rewritten ordinance in March. This work on the ordinance is being done within a broader planning process known as the Urban Ecology Framework (UEF), which is itself part of a still broader plan for Atlanta called the Atlanta City Design, completed in 2017.
I have served as a member of a UEF stakeholder committee. Our committee contributed ideas first to a kind of concept plan for future green spaces, green connections, and green policies in Atlanta. Then work on the ordinance began, in which our committee has been much less involved. The schedule for the rewrite continues until August, as you can see below.
The headline of my interim report to you on Draft TPO 1.0 is as follows: it’s a missed opportunity. The city and its consultant Biohabitats have made the ordinance even more complicated, without clear improvements that promise more scientific, more effective protection for our trees and tree canopy.
What follows is my attempt to summarize in part what has been offered to the public. Please know that it is imperfect and incomplete. Why? Partly because the process has been highly imperfect, with key changes mid-process within the city’s planning team; subpar communication and followup with the technical and advisory committees; and release of this draft version without any annotations or without redlining to reveal the proposed changes from the existing ordinance.
It’s also imperfect and incomplete because this is a highly technical, 50-page document, encompassing minutiae on tree valuation, tree density, preservation thresholds and incentives, reasons for removal, notifications and posting, appeals process, parking lot requirements, and much, much more. Frankly, some of it is beyond my competence to assess, and it’s far beyond my ability to summarize here.
In any case, here are some highlights.
NOT A BRAND-NEW ORDINANCE
Broadly speaking, this “new “ordinance amounts to a tweaking of our existing ordinance. The city has NOT started from scratch. Instead, it has simply altered the existing ordinance.
Note that other cities have taken a more holistic and thoroughgoing approach to improving protection of their trees and forests, by better incorporating current scientific knowledge and making better use of zoning. For example, in our nation’s capital, site designs for construction are required to achieve a certain score, varying by zoning district and calculated by the green elements selected and the area of the site they cover. A number of different green elements qualify for what’s called the Green Area Ratio including permeable surfaces, vegetated roofs, bioretention, and trees.
GOAL TO “SLOW OR HALT” CANOPY LOSS
The stated goal is “to protect and advance a high-quality urban forest within the boundaries of the city and slow or halt canopy loss.” That is, the city is committing itself only to slow canopy loss.
It is the intent of this Article to prevent the clearing and removal of all trees on a lot for construction or landscaping. Permits to allow removal of all trees on sites that contain 3 or more healthy (i.e., non-invasive/undesirable) trees, not including hardwoods less than 6-inch DBH and pines less than 12-inch DBH, will be reviewed by the City Arborist and referred with their recommendation to the Tree Conservation Commission for final approval or disapproval. Tree Conservation Commission hearing procedures apply.
NEW CATEGORY: TREE SIGNIFICANCE
A major addition to the existing ordinance is that trees will now be assigned to a significance category. More significant trees get more protection; less significant trees get less protection. The new ordinance creates a weighted point system for tree attributes (e.g., species? native or non-native? age? size? condition? etc.); ecological and site factors (e.g., grove presence? grove age? riparian buffer? floodplain? steep slope? etc.); and project type (linear infrastructure? mass transit? affordable housing? urban agriculture? handicapped access? etc.) .
Category 1 has the lowest significance (e.g., tree is dead, diseased, hazardous, etc.) and Category 5 has the highest significance (i.e. tree provides the highest environmental services, is specially designated as historic or specimen, etc.).
These new categories affect tree protection in a variety of ways throughout the proposed revision. For example, the higher the significance of a removed tree, the more trees that must be replanted / the greater the recompense payment as determined by the ordinance’s formula.
These screenshots from presentations made by the city suggest how the significance categories could affect tree protection:
That some trees are more valuable than others — in that they provide a higher level of ecosystem services, more support for wildlife, and so on — is inarguable. So it’s a good thing that the new ordinance would distinguish between a 20-inch white oak in a floodplain and a 20-inch tree of heaven in a kudzu patch.
More analysis will be needed to determine whether the city is providing enough protection for trees of lower significance, and how trees will be categorized in practice — for example, at present the city envisions having the property owner evaluate tree significance and fill out a form (see this working example) that must be submitted with the permit application, a process that seems absurdly unworkable and open to widespread abuse.
REMOVING HEALTHY TREES
Atlanta’s existing ordinance does allow for the removal of some healthy trees. The most obvious example is in the case of smaller trees (<6″ in diameter) on private property, which the government does not regulate at all. And obviously, healthy trees in the buildable area of a lot can be removed, provided that the developer or building owner applies for a permit and agrees to replant or pay recompense.
The existing ordinance also allows for the permitting of some removals without requiring any replanting or recompense, as in the example of trees growing near the foundation of a house or in the case of certain undesirable tree species.
Draft TPO 1.0 creates some new justifications for private property owners to remove healthy trees. Here are a few examples:
Once every three years, a property owner can remove a healthy tree or trees (up to 5% of the total inches of diameter on site) for any reason, provided that certain conditions are met and the tree is not Category 4 or 5.
Property owners may apply for a permit to remove a healthy tree of any category if it is causing “severe hardscape damage” or is in “significant conflict with overhead and underground utilities.”
Property owners may also remove a tree if it poses imminent danger to property, provided that the owner applies for and is granted a permit after the fact.
An argument exists that these new allowances and exemptions are unnecessary or imprudent as written. Why allow a property owner to remove an otherwise healthy, large, mature tree on a whim? What does “severe hardscape damage” really mean — not cracks in a homeowner’s driveway, surely? Does “imminent danger to property” include danger to a birdbath?
Draft TPO 1.0 makes no change in two areas of significant concern to people who care about Atlanta’s trees.
The proposed ordinance splits jurisdiction over privately owned and street trees, on the one hand, and trees in parks, on the other, between City Planning and the Office of Parks, respectively. Many of us believe that one unified staff of arborists within city government should be given responsibility for all trees in the city. There appears to be no rationale for the division other than the bureaucratic organization of Atlanta’s government.
The proposed ordinance also continues to divert money intended for replanting into other uses. These include:
Up to $50,000 for administering the ordinance.
Up to 5% of the money added to the fund the previous year or $100,000, whichever is greater, for educational materials.
Up to $110,000 per year for the salary and benefits of two (2) arborist positions in the Department of City Planning.
Up to $75,000 annually for the salary and benefits of an arborist senior/project manager position.
Up to $200,000 per year for the salary and benefits of a tree pruning crew, consisting of one forestry crew supervisor, one tree trimmer senior, and one tree trimmer.
Up to $60,000 per year for the salary and benefits of an administrative analyst
An undefined amount annually for the salary and benefits of the clerk of the Tree Conservation Commission.
These administrative and operational expenses are draining up to $600,000 from other uses of the Tree Trust Fund, namely, replanting, acquiring forest land, purchasing forest easements, maintaining trees in parks, etc.
Provisions of Draft TPO 1.0 open up a number of opportunities for the City of Atlanta to set aside the requirements of this law. The rationale on paper may seem plausible, but in practice, there is potential for abuse.
One example is implementation of the Atlanta City Design of 2017, which envisions intense development and higher population density along north-south and east-west axes in the city.
And so, “to promote new construction or substantial reconstruction in City Design Growth Areas, the City may reduce site density levels and preservation thresholds for non-single- family zoning categories by 50% for projects planned in the City Design Growth areas.” Roughly speaking, then, even fewer trees in places where the urban forest has been most reduced in the past several decades, in exchange for more trees on the periphery.
Also functioning as loopholes, and already mentioned above, are projects that the city deems important enough to justify modifying the proposed ordinance, e.g., mobility improvement, mass transit, affordable housing, “green” building, stormwater management, handicapped access, solar access, etc.
Part 3: How You Can Help
As you can see from the calendar above, in July and August the City Council and the NPUs are slated to take up the final version of the proposed TPO. Letting Amir Farokhi know — now or later — that you want a stronger ordinance and do not want to see the city weaken protections for our trees would be so great!
Tree Watch will be asking arborists with the Department of Parks to inspect some of our curbside trees for safety or for possible pruning. If a tree at or near your home is listed, feel free to reach out to us for comment or to ask a question. The following addresses are affected:
To assess health and structure:
1066 Colquitt Ave
836 Euclid Ave
1001 Euclid Ave
850 Euclid Ave
137 Hale St
853 Lake Ave
768 Lake Ave
487 N. Highland Ave
983 Waverly Way
100 Waverly Way
For possible pruning:
1135 Alta Ave
1100 Austin Ave (#1)
1100 Austin Ave (#2)
954 Austin Ave
1066 Colquitt Ave
145 Elizabeth St (#1)
145 Elizabeth St (#2)
853 Lake Ave
56 Spruce St
991 Waverly Way
Everything is connected — remember that, and I’ll come back to it in a moment.
I grew up in a small town in rural Georgia. Really small: not even 2,500 people (i.e., about half of Inman Park’s population). In those days and in that part of the world, children spent a lot of time outdoors. Lots and lots of time outdoors.
From an early age, therefore, older people were continually instructing us in the proper evaluation of risk. Mommy and Daddy were not going to be around to protect us from each and every danger: we children had to learn for ourselves how to live a full, active life with an acceptable level of risk.
This is a poisonous snake; that one isn’t. This is poison ivy; that’s Virginia creeper. Don’t you ever point a gun — even an unloaded gun, even a toy gun — at another person. “No” to getting into water until we could swim and swim well. What’s more, we were instructed never to dive headfirst without knowing exactly what was below the surface. We knew to be prompt about cleaning and disinfecting all wounds. We learned deep respect for fire. We were taught that an animal with rabies behaves such-and-such a way …
And so on.
Even so, people were killed and injured in the woods and fields around my hometown, just as they are every week on I-285 and the Downtown Connector. I remember the awe in my father’s voice when he told me about a man who was sitting in his pickup on the shoulder of a road. From behind him, a logging truck came rumbling by. At just the wrong moment, one of the logs rolled off the top of the pile, smashed through the back window of the man’s pickup at 55 mph, and decapitated the unfortunate fellow.
I think about all of that when I encounter neighbors who are afraid of trees growing near their homes.
“It’s just a tree. I’m a human being. My spouse and our children are humans. As far as I’m concerned, there is no level of danger that is acceptable to me. None at all. That tree needs to go. Why should I have to worry about it being blown over onto my house? It’s just a tree.”
That’s what I imagine they’re thinking. And on one view, it’s very hard to argue with that way of thinking.
It’s just a tree, after all, and it’s just one tree.
We live amid danger. Danger from bad drivers. Danger from lightning and flooding. Danger from criminals. Danger from aggressive dogs. Danger from high summer temperatures. Danger of contracting an infectious disease. Danger of getting fired or laid off. Danger of becoming anxious or depressed. Danger of losing a spouse or child. Danger from terrorism and nuclear weapons and unhinged politicians.
Amid so many dangers in life, even I can understand the appeal of eliminating the risk posed by that large tree. And if I make the effort to imagine what it is like not to have grown up learning how to tell the difference between a cottonmouth moccasin and a harmless watersnake, I can manage to be more sympathetic to those neighbors of mine who have a different tolerance of risk with regard to an oak that will fall one day (or a mosquito that may be spreading disease, which is a topic for a different day).
All that said, let me leave you with two thoughts.
First, unlike an animal, which will fight tooth and claw to live, a tree will die without apparent protest, without a sound. And yet you are connected to that tree in profound, complex, essential, and still mysterious ways. I’m not being spiritual here. The clean air you breathe, the clean water you drink? Gifts from our forests. Ponder that, the next time you hear the whine of a chainsaw.
Second, I do get a little angry when I sense that any of my neighbors is insufficiently concerned about the impact of “small-decision effects.” That’s a fancy way of saying that if everyone cuts down all of his or her larger trees, we’re all going to suffer. Which is another way of saying that some people, sadly, are very happy for me to tolerate risk from a large tree, so long as they don’t have to.
Life, in significant part, is one long effort to manage risk, in such a way that we neither die as a consequence of recklessness, nor fail to live fully as a consequence of timidity. We need our urban forest, friends — so please keep making an effort to find that happy medium between unnecessary fretting and blithe unconcern (which, fortunately for us, a good arborist can help us with).
Inman Park has been working closely with Trees Atlanta for at least two decades. Their entire organization collaborates with us to plant and maintain new trees, as well as to educate and raise awareness among our residents. In any given year, Trees Atlanta might commit tens of thousands of dollars to our neighborhood.
Relying upon the generosity of Inman Park, which is expressed partially through IPNA’s budgeting of funds and partially through eager responses to fundraising by Tree Watch, we are able to make an annual donation to Trees Atlanta.
Shown here on Monday, June 10, at the Trees Atlanta Kendeda Center are (L-R) Tree Watch’s Steve Hays, Chief Program Officer Greg Levine, Marge Hays of Tree Watch, and Chief Operating Officer Connie Veates.
There are earlier posts of mine about gas-powered leaf blowers: read them here and here. Washington, D.C., recently enacted a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, to take full effect by 2022. The journalist James Fallows and his wife Deb were among a small group of neighborhood activists who started working toward this in 2015. You can read here a short article by Fallows at The Atlantic with links to additional information.