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.
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. Continue reading Fear of Trees
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.