Tree Ordinance Not Enforced

 

Summary of Unenforced Sections

The Tree Next Door is presently working with the Arborist Division and Tree Conservation Commission to correct these ordinance violations. A status update of our progress is linked below each item in red.  The most recent update we have received is from the media, in which Reporter News interviewed Elizabeth Johnson, Project Manager for City Planning, about the Buckhead Council of Neighborhood’s concerns that parts of the Tree Protection Ordinance are going unenforced.  Their concerns are in direct response to our flyer which was distributed at their January 10, 2019 meeting.

1. “Saved” trees are being destroyed.

This section mandates an on-site conference between the developer and the arborist for a final tree fence inspection before demolition, grading, or construction begins. With no pre-construction conferences, developers have been allowed to grade lots, cut down trees, and refuse to put up tree fences, often before the preliminary approval of tree removal (yellow sign posting) is completed.

Click here for status update.

This section provides for more substantial wood or steel tree fencing on heavy construction sites or upon multiple violations. Metal fencing has proven to be very effective, but the arborist office rarely requires it for tree fence violations. And even when it is required, contractors often remove or shift the fences, resulting in destroyed trees.

Click her for status update.

 

2. Destroyed trees aren’t being counted.

This section requires a quarterly report showing the total number and DBH of trees removed by various categories, including DDH (dead, dying or hazardous) trees. Until October 2019, destroyed trees were not being counted because there were no quarterly reports. Trees removed on public property still are not being counted. 

Click here for status update.

 

3. We don’t know about planned tree removals.

This section ensures that notice of preliminary approvals for tree cutting be posted in 1) the office of the city arborist that issued the approval (Office of Planning or Office of Parks), 2) the City of Atlanta website (www.atlantaga.gov), and 3) on the property affected so that it may be seen and read by passers-by. Presently, for trees on private property, there is no posting in either the Office of Planning or on the city website. The only way to know if there are plans to remove a tree on private property is to drive by the yellow sign posted on the property.

Click here for status update.

 

4. No one is planning for Atlanta’s future tree canopy.

This section states that the Tree Conservation Commission is to consult with the city forester in the preparation of the master plan for the trees in the city. Most cities have a master plan which include tree inventories, recommended species of trees, future planning, and attention to special sections of the city, like watersheds, that need tree attention. Although the Tree Conservation Commission has, within the last two years, contracted satellite imaging of the city trees, Atlanta is doing no overall tree planning. There is no master plan.

Click here for status update.

 

5. Standards are not being consistently followed.

This section says that the Tree Conservation Commission is to review and approve the required city arboricultural specifications and standards of practice (SOPs). Until 2011, the Arborist Division had followed prescribed SOPs for such functions as assessing tree health, posting tree removal signs, and keeping field books. Presently, it appears that there is no set of SOPs being consistently followed, other than how to enter data into Accela, the City’s online services application.

Click here for status update.

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Section 158-63 (4): Standards of Practice

Standards of Practice are not being consistently followed.

Section 158-63(4) says that the Tree Conservation Commission is to review and approve the required city arboricultural specifications and standards of practice (SOPs). Until 2011, the Arborist Division had followed prescribed SOPs for such functions as assessing tree health, posting tree removal signs, and keeping field books. Presently, it appears that there is no set of SOPs being consistently followed, other than how to enter data into Accela, the City’s online services application.

Sec. 158-63(4): Reviewing and approving the city arboricultural specifications and standards of practice promulgated by the city arborist and city forester and required pursuant to this article.

Standards of Practice Update

February 2, 2019:  Elizabeth Johnson, Project Manager with the Department of Planning told the Reporter Newspapers that “Plan reviewers and field arborists have been trained to follow current procedure and standards; however, the Standards of Practice (SOPs), dated June 2009, need to be updated. These SOPs will be updated in the near future.”

Our Response:

We question what “current procedures and standards” plan reviewers and field arborists have been trained to follow since we are witnessing first hand that site plans are not always inspected for accuracy before a yellow sign is posted, trees are being arbitrarily removed as “DDH”, and field notes seem to be relic of the past.  We need a commitment to an actual date in the “near future” for the 2009 SOPs to be updated, but in the meantime, the city arborists need to follow the current standards of practice.

 

Section 158-63(5): Master Plan

No one is planning for Atlanta’s future tree canopy because there is no Master Plan.

Section 158-63(5) states that the Tree Conservation Commission is to consult with the city forester in the preparation of the master plan for the trees in the city. Most cities have a master plan which include tree inventories, recommended species of trees, future planning, and attention to special sections of the city, like watersheds, that need tree attention. Although the Tree Conservation Commission has, within the last two years, contracted satellite imaging of the city trees, Atlanta is doing no overall tree planning. There is no master plan.

Sec. 158-63(5) Providing consultation and assistance to the city forester in the preparation of the master plan required pursuant to this article.

Master Plan Status Update

February 2, 2019: According to the Reporter Newspapers, Elizabeth Johnson, Project Manager with the Department of Planning, said "the ordinance dictates that the Parks Department is in charge of that master plan, and the city Arborist Division will be 'supportive' of it."

Our Response:

We are asking both the Parks Department and the Tree Conservation Commission to prepare a master plan for the trees in the City. However, given that 90% of the trees in Atlanta are on private property, and therefore, fall under the purview of the Arborist Division, the Arborist Division needs to support the creation of that plan by providing data on the state of our tree canopy. That data doesn't exist, however, because the Arborist Division doesn't produce any quarterly reports.

   

Section 158-101(e)(4): Postings

We don’t know about planned tree removals because there is no direct way to see the tree removal sign postings online.

Section 158-101(e)(4) ensures that notice of preliminary approvals for tree cutting be posted in 1) the office of the city arborist that issued the approval (Office of Planning or Office of Parks), 2) the City of Atlanta website (www.atlantaga.gov), and 3) on the property affected so that it may be seen and read by passers-by. Presently, for trees on private property, there is no posting in either the Office of Planning or on the city website. The only way to know if there are plans to remove a tree on private property is to drive by the yellow sign posted on the property.

Sec. 158-101(e)(4) The notice of preliminary approval for both public and private property trees, shall be posted in the office of the city arborist that is ruling on the removal permit (either the office of planning or the office of parks), on the City of Atlanta website (www.atlantaga.gov), and in a prominent manner upon the property affected so that it may be seen and read by passers-by. The notice of preliminary approval shall inform any reader that an appeal may be filed with the clerk of the tree conservation commission, and shall indicate the deadline by which the appeal must be filed. The notice shall further indicate that the failure to appeal within the designated time period will result in the issuance of the removal permit without further right of appeal. If the notice of preliminary approval is not [posted as required by this section, no permit shall be issued. The commission may provide further additional rules regarding the manner and method of posting to the extent that such rule is consistent with the requirements of this section.

Sign Postings Status Update:

February 2, 2018: The Reporter Newspapers stated that Elizabeth Johnson, Project Manager with the Department of Planning, "did not fully respond to the [sign postings] complaint, instead saying that tree-cutting approvals can be found in the online Accela permit database."

November 8, 2018:  David Zaparanick, Arboricultural Manager, wrote an email to Kathy Evans, Senior Administrative Analyst for the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission, which said that "Sign postings are available for public viewing on Accela Citizen, an official website of the City of Atlanta as required by the Tree Ordinance. We are happy to assist in accessing records in Accela as needed. I will request review of our posting method from the TCC."

Our Response:

Sec. 158-101(e)(4) of the tree ordinance specifically states that sign postings for preliminary approval to destroy trees must be done on the City of Atlanta website. Sec. 158-101(e)(4) even spells out the URL of the www.atlantaga.gov website in case there is any doubt as to which website is being referenced in the ordinance.

  • Accela is NOT part of the www.atlantaga.gov website, but is part of a third party website located at www.accela.com.
  • Accela is NOT a government (.gov) website but a private commercial (.com) website that sells software services.

Accela, a third party online database that most citizens don't even know exists, is not a satisfactory substitue for the yellow sign postings that one used to be able to easily access on the Arborist Division website. Not only does Accela require a 13 page user-guide to understand how to navigate the non-user friendly database, there is no place to see yellow sign postings by neighborhood (NPU) or zip code in Accela.  To find a yellow sign posting, one has to look up an individual street address one already suspects may have a yellow posting and drill down into a specific arborist record to see if there is a yellow sign associated with that record.  Many properties have multiple arborist records.

The Office of Parks publishes yellow sign postings for public trees prominently on their site to be in compliance with the tree ordinance, so there is no reason the Arborist Division cannot do the same for trees on private property. While Accela was not the chosen software when the tree ordinance was written and amended, it should not be used to thwart the intentions of the law which was to make yellow postings available to the average citizen. The Arborist Division field arborists know exactly where they are placing the yellow signs into the ground, so these same field arborists should be able to enter the placement of these yellow signs into an online spreadsheet on the city government website, sortable by NPU and zip code.

 

Section 158-103(f): Quarterly Reports

Until October 2019, destroyed trees were not being counted because there were no quarterly reports.  Trees removed on public property still are not being counted.

Section 158-103(f) requires a quarterly report showing the total number and DBH of trees removed by various categories, including DDH (dead, dying, or hazardous) trees. The City Arborist Division used to produce these quarterly reports for trees on private property, but had not produced any reports since the introduction of the Accela reporting system.  Accela did not compile the tree data required by Sec. 158-103(f) of the Tree Protection Ordinance, and the City claimed that due to staffing issues they did not have the resources to create this report themselves.

Sec. 158-103(f) The city arborist shall prepare a quarterly report to be presented to the tree conservation commission. The report shall include the total number and DBH of trees removed and/or the total number and DBH of trees replanted during the preceding quarter in each of the following categories: maximum recompense per acre, dead/dying/diseased/hazardous removal, landscaping permit, silvicultural removal, buildable area removal, parking lots, illegal removal, off-site planting, or any other permit or penalty category not listed. The report shall also include acreage, total number of trees and total DBH for any newly created conservation easements or newly created parklands.

Quarterly Reports Status Update

October 10, 2019:  The City Arborist Department finally releases a quarterly report showing the number of trees that were removed in the third quarter of 2019*. This is the first time we have had a quarterly report in over a decade. From 2008 to 2019, the City had no data of tree loss and tree replanting, which means that since 2008 we have had no way to quantitatively understand how our tree canopy is being impacted by development, aging, disease, and other environmental factors. As we have watched City Planning progress further into the tree ordinance rewrite over these past months, it has alarmed us that all the rewrite team's new proposals have not been based on data, but public perception and developer opinion.

Now that the City can tabulate the records in Accela for a quarterly report, we hope they will use this data to determine the appropriate solutions to mitigate tree loss in the rewrite of the new tree ordinance. Furthermore, this data can be used to help create a master plan which is also required by the tree ordinance but has never been written. For more information on the 3rd quarter report, click here. 

February 2, 2019:  According to the Reporter Newspapers, Elizabeth Johnson, Project Manager with the Department of Planning, said "the [quarterly] reports have not been produced due to the lack of a staff member who can code them into a newer city records software called Accela. An Accela administrator left in August and a replacement was scheduled to start in January. 'Reporting for the Office of Buildings, including the Arborist, is a main priority for this individual,' she said."

Our Response:

The departure of an Accela administrator in August 2018 does not explain why the Arborist Division had not produced a quarterly report since 2008.  

*The 3rd quarter report released October 2019 is for trees on private property only; therefore, we do not have this information for trees on public property, which falls under the purview of the Office of Parks.

   

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