Tag Archives: tree protection ordinance

Who actually owns our street trees?

The answer should be clear.

It’s not, at least not to me.

  • “The City of Atlanta owns them, Jim. That’s obvious. After all, they’re in the public right-of-way. You’re forbidden by law from removing or injuring those trees, but the City itself can do whatever it wants with them. Clearly, the trees belong to the City.”
  • “You own them, Jim. After all, you’re the one who’s legally responsible for maintaining that strip along the street (e.g., keeping it level with the sidewalk, keeping it free of holes and weeds, pruning the trees themselves). If the City has to step in and do the maintenance for you, it can charge you with the expense. If the City abandons its right-of-way along the road, you’re the one with the reversionary right. And so on. Clearly, the trees belong to you.”

Totally confusing.

I mean, get this. (Unless, I’m misunderstanding something here.)

  • The City of Atlanta can plant a tree in front of my house. (As a courtesy, the City or its designee may give me an opportunity to decline. If the City’s designee is Trees Atlanta, and it almost always is Trees Atlanta, you will absolutely be given that opportunity.)
  • The City will then require me to maintain the tree, including keeping it pruned (see Sec. 138-14(b) of the Streets, Sidewalks, and Other Public Spaces Ordinance).
  • But if I prune the tree incorrectly, the City can FINE me for that (see Sec. 158-26 of the Tree Protection Ordinance):

Destroy means any intentional or negligent act or lack of protection that is more likely than not to cause a tree to die within a period of five years, as determined by the city forester or city arborist. Such acts include, but are not limited to … removing in excess of 20 percent of the live crown of the tree …. In addition, topping, tipping, or any similar improper pruning practices will automatically be deemed as destruction of a tree.

The proposal for a new tree ordinance appears to go further. It defines a public tree as follows:

Public Trees. No person shall damage, prune, remove, maintain, plant, or otherwise affect any tree of any size in any public right-of-way, park, or other City property without having first obtained a permit or other authorization from the City.

So I’m supposed to get a City permit or authorization before I “affect” trees growing along the street in front of my house, which “affecting” I am legally obligated to carry out?

Okay, okay. Yes, I’m being intentionally obtuse to make a point.

Obviously, the general public (i.e., the City of Atlanta) and private property owners EACH have legal rights with respect to street trees. We SHARE responsibilities.

It’s like everything else in cities. Because residents live cheek by jowl, everyone has to to accept heavier responsibilities and stricter limitations than someone living in the middle of nowhere.

Given all that, it’s really important that we have some clear rules and abide by them.

One rule is that random individuals must not take it upon themselves to prune a street tree in front of someone else’s house. This is not cool:

That’s obvious, right? THAT TREE IS NOT YOUR PRIVATE PROPERTY. If you happen to “destroy” a tree by pruning it incorrectly, you’re putting the abutting property owner in legal jeopardy.

Trees Atlanta has a blanket permit to maintain trees throughout the City. Moreover, IPNA has a Tree Watch Committee with trained volunteers who can be held accountable for tree maintenance undertaken by the neighborhood.

The status of street trees is complicated enough without the unauthorized, unasked-for, unaccountable interventions of anonymous individuals.

Always contact Tree Watch with your questions and complaints about our public trees. If we don’t have the answer or can’t help, we’ll find someone who does and can.

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.

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!

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?

Tree Protection Ordinance 1.0

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.

  1. Tell you something about how Atlanta currently protects trees.
  2. Set out the rudiments of the proposed changes to our law.
  3. 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.

Washington, D.C.’s Green Area Ratio

Continue reading Tree Protection Ordinance 1.0