City of Atlanta Rewriting Tree Ordinance (Again)

For the third time in nine years, the City of Atlanta is taking another stab at rewriting the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance.

As a bit of history, in 2010, the Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, Wallace, Roberts, and Todd (WRT), interviewed a number of tree ordinance stakeholders, (i.e., city departments, tree advocates, builders and developers) to gather input into what changes needed to be made to the tree ordinance. In 2011, WRT worked closely with The Tree Next Door to rewrite the ordinance so that it would be simpler and better organized, address inconsistencies and improve efficacy, and incorporate current arboricultural science. What resulted was a draft that was eventually shelved. In 2014, another rewrite, in which The Tree Next Door did not participate, was submitted to the City Council Community Development/Human Resources Committee, but this rewrite, too, never made it into law.

In 2017, City of Atlanta Planning Commissioner, Tim Keane, reached back to the city he left in 2015, and hired Charleston-based consulting firm Biohabitats to conduct a year-long assessment, the Urban Ecology Framework, to "define a better future condition for the natural environment, including high-level recommendations about future green spaces, green connections, and green policies." The study, which began in March 2018, was supposed to result in a finished Tree Ordinance rewrite by the time the Biohabitats' scope of work ended this past summer (2019). Now it looks like it may be November (2019) before we have even a first draft of the new Tree Ordinance based on the updated time table. Meantime, there were several “mini-updates” presented to the Urban Ecology Framework Technical Advisory Committee back in the spring of 2018, but the full ordinance is still to be rewritten.

Two public forums were held on April 23 and 24, 2019 to present the results of the Biohabitats' year-long study, which largely focused on protecting trees near waterways and considering ideas for future land restorations projects, which, not surprisingly, is Biohatbitas' area of experitise.  They briefly touched upon the new ordinance in a one page slide, but did not make any recommendations that showed how we could preserve our existing canopy, much less grow it to 50%, the City's stated goal.

Four public forums were held on consecutive evenings in each of the City's four quadrants on June 3 - 6, 2019 to review an outline of the first draft of the new tree protection ordinance.  The outline revealed that the City was indeed focusing on saving trees in stream buffers and large intact forests, but had not given any special consideration to other areas of Atlanta, particularly single family residential neighborhoods where 77% of Atlanta's tree canopy resides.  The City talked about implementing a more "streamlined review process" which moves the planning process for trees to the beginning of the permitting process, but balances tree preservation with the City's needs for "affordability, mobility, and growth."  Also, the City recommeded eliminating all preliminary permit postings and appeal options for proposed tree removals, an idea that was soundly trounced by the forum attendees. 

A couple of weeks after the draft outline was presented, City Council voted that, effective immediately, the Department of City Planning was "to establish a pre-submittal team to conduct and coordinate consultations at the beginning of the permit review process in order to protect and preserve trees in Atlanta."

On July 11, 2019, Elizabeth Johnson gave a presentation on the tree ordinance rewrite to Watershed Management in which she presented a new timeline for the tree ordinance rewrite.  That timeline pushed back the first draft review to August 2019, when a City Council work session to review the draft ordinance, originally scheduled for June, would take place on August 22.  The second draft review would come sometime in September or October.

However, there was no draft ready for the City Council members to review when the work session took place on Thursday, August 22.  Instead, Planning Commissioner Tim Keane gave a slide show presentation outlining the current status of the project, which didn't show substantially any more progress from what we saw in June.  And to our consternation, City Planning was still proposing "streamlined postings, appeals and permit process" and "allowances to remove healthy trees" for non-construction purposes, two ideas which were overwhelmingly rejected by the residents who attended the presentation of the TPO Rewrite Draft Outline in June 2019.

The Council members present all expressed significant disappointment that there was no first draft ready yet.  Council member Natalyn Archibong pressed Tim Keane to commit to having a first draft for City Council to review in November "before Thanksgiving", and Keane agreed.

Keane also presented some high level numbers for Accela on the tree removals that have occurred on private property over the past six years.  The numbers look a bit low to us given the number of trees that have been removed on just the properties in which we have been engaged.  

The City has updated their website with a summary of the feedback they claim to have received from the community. The Tree Next Door has conducted a side-by-side comparison between what City Planning says the public response has been and what we have heard, and find there are significant discrepancies.  The most notable differences are in regard to eliminating the posting and appeals process and allowing homeowners to cut one healthy "non-high value" tree a year.  Both of these proposed concepts were the most viscerally opposed by the community and yet, it appears that the City heard that the public was at least somewhat receptive.

While The Tree Next Door has always been supportive of rewriting Atlanta's tree ordinance to make it clearer, we have seen twice now a tree ordinance rewrite that never became reality. Whether this third attempt might actually succeed in becoming law is still to be determined, but we do know that we cannot wait another year (or two) for a new ordinance when trees are coming down now due to a lack of enforcement with our current tree ordinance. After all, what good is a new tree ordinance if the City of Atlanta is unwilling to enforce the one it currently has? To that end, The Tree Next Door has identified the five most commonly violated sections of the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance we would like to see addressed so that by the time we do get a new tree ordinance, the enforcement mechanisms are already in place.

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