Is City Planning Listening to the People?

Is City Planning listening to the community, or have they become so invested in their original Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) Rewrite Draft Outline that they can't turn the ship?

At the August 22, 2019 City Council work session, 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. 

We must keep the posting and appeals process for all properties in the new tree ordinance.

In the past, "streamlining" the permitting process has resulted in limiting public participation by shortening appeal times and making it more difficult to appeal.  For example, prior to 2008 we had 15 days to appeal a preliminary permit on private property; now with "streamlining", we have only 5 days to appeal. How much more streamlined can we get without completely doing away with postings and appeals?

That's exactly where City Planning was heading with the new tree ordinance when in June they proposed to eliminate postings and appeals for any project the City decided was "doing everything right". People were completely opposed to that concept, and yet City Planning is still proposing to streamline the postings, appeals and permit process, with no assurances that this streamlining will not make it more difficult or virtually impossible to appeal some tree permitting decisions.  City Planning needs to recognize that a tree ordinance which puts some permits behind closed doors and out of public view invites the kind of corruption which the City of Atlanta already knows too well. 

The community doesn't want the allowance to remove one healthy tree a year in the new tree ordinance.

Residents also were shocked to hear City Planning propose an allowance for individual property owners to remove one healthy tree a year that the City decides is "non-high value" (a non-scientific assessment).  While we understand that some people fear trees falling on their houses and others need financial assistance to maintain their trees, the answer to these concerns is more education, greater public investment in tree maintenance, and appropriate use of DDH and landscape permits, not allowing tree removal simply because someone doesn't like a tree in their yard.  (Plus, developers may be able to cut the largest tree on their property with no recompense if this proposal is passed.)  Public outcry to this concept was heated, with people saying that it was "a recipe for disaster" and "could decimate our coverage in no time." Yet, City Planning is continuing to push for "allowances to remove healthy trees."  Why?  The "one tree a year" allowance is completely counter to the City's stated goal to increase our canopy coverage to 50%. 

What did City Planning hear the people say? 

In his August 22, 2019 presentation to City Council, Tim Keane presented the following as the feedback he received from each of the primary stakeholder groups:

Engaged residents

  • Atlanta’s tree canopy is special and a major source of pride and enjoyment
  • Allow for flexibility with homeowners going through non-development processes
  • Increase education and support for tree protection and maintenance

Advocacy groups (Keane said this group included The Tree Next Door and City in the Forest)

  • Support more protection and preservation of trees early in the process
  • Stronger enforcement
  • Plant more native trees
  • Preserve and conserve land
  • Ordinance needs more definition and clarity
  • Build smarter, more environemtnally [sic] sensitive (grading, soils, etc.)

Development industry

  • Homebuilders, homeowners, and property owners want to protect our natural environment AND have the homes the citizens of Atlanta need.
  • Imperative that property owners must be able to fully utilize the “buildable area” of their lot.
  • Improve the process to be more consistent and reliable
  • Align standareds [sic] with other ordinances and agencies
  • Affordability concerns with more stringent regulation - will increase cost to build

City agencies

  • Replanting standards and processes often hinder public projects funding and schedules.
  • Ideal to have alignment with private development standards.
  • Need for better communication and coordination among city agencies, potential centralization

The scant amount of feedback City Planning says its received from "Engaged residents" makes these residents appear to be hardly engaged at all.  Surely this group does not include the very engaged residents who showed up at the June public feedback sessions, or else, City Planning missed 95% of their feedback.

Perhaps City Planning is assuming that the people who are engaged enough to show up at a tree ordinance public feedback session is actually part of the "Advocacy groups" category, even though the vast majority of them do not belong to any tree advocacy group.  If so, aren't some key points missing from what they said? (Like what's in the red text above?)

The concerns listed underneath "Advocacy groups" above completely ignore the summary feedback TTND member deLille Anthony sent to City Planning on July 17, 2019, which highlights that the public wants the posting and appeals process to stay (and, at minimum, adhere to the current online TPO posting requirements) and that the public wants the proposed “one free tree removal a year” policy to be removed, period.  The letter also addresses the lack of data in the rewrite process and the concern with their Tree Bank proposal to allow recompense to be in the form of tradable credits instead of real dollars.  But none of those key concerns are reflected in the "Advocacy groups" feedback above. Why? 

Rewriting the ordinance was supposed to help retain and grow the tree canopy, not accelerate its destruction.  

Has City Planning has gotten so far down the road with what they think are good ideas, especially for developers, that they have stopped listening to feedback that may require them to reassess what they are proposing? We know we won't get a tree ordinance that we like 100%, but we will insist on having a tree ordinance that addresses our top concerns that City Planning appears to be ignoring.  We know that residents are adamantly opposed to giving up their appeal rights and that they are adamantly against the "one free tree removal a year" proposal, so these two items need to be struck from the first draft, or else we will be advocating to shut down this rewrite process. 

For more comparison on the feedback City Planning and The Tree Next Door captured from the "sticky notes" placed on the concept boards in June, click here.

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