The proposed tree ordinance for the city of Sandy Springs has created a lot of discussion and an apparent breach between many concerned citizens and City Council, but also among members of council as well. The question is which voices will be heard loudest when council votes on the ordinance at its February 6 meeting.
Two major issues are the provisions of the ordinance that require a 50 percent tree canopy on residential properties and four recommendations the Tree Ordinance Advisory Committee made for inclusion into the ordinance that many residents in the community want to see included but City Council flatly rejected at its January 9 discussion.
The one issue council members, city staff and most of the general public seem to be in concert on is that they all are opposed to the collusion that seems to be going on in the city between some developers and single-family homeowners that is resulting in the homeowners “clear cutting” the trees from their properties under a loophole in the present law so that they can then sell their property to a developer at a higher price.
The four recommendations made by the Advisory Committee but left out of the tree ordinance by the city’s staff, included:
•Create a “historic tree” designation, which would include any tree associated with a significant historic event or life of a person or group with historic significance;
•Allow for “landmark” tree designation for large pine trees not in the immediate vicinity of structure;
• Require residential owners removing over 20 percent of the tree canopy to submit a tree removal plan and obtain a tree removal permit; and
•Establishment of a Tree Conservation Board to hear appeals under the new ordinance and serve in an advisory capacity to the City Council.
All four of the recommendations were voted down during a straw vote by council with all council members voting against the “historic tree” designation and only District 6 Councilmember Karen Meinzen McEnery voting for each of the other three recommendations.
During the council Jan. 9 work session, Mayor Eva Galambos set the tone for the ensuing discussion with an introductory statement.
“Everybody at this table loves trees,” the mayor said. “I think you have total unanimity on the council that we absolutely deplore any collusion that may be going on between a few, mean-spirited homeowners, who think they can sell their land faster and collude with developers to cut down the trees” while the city is in between the present law and trying to pass the new tree ordinance.
“So, I think we ought to do something about that,” the mayor stated. “Probably 99.9 percent of the homeowners are reluctant to cut the trees on their own lawn unless they have a hazard. The cure for that .1 percent should not be worse than the problem. To require homeowners to get a permit to cut down trees in their own yard, after getting a plan by an arborist, may be overkill. The real problem is the collusion.”
The mayor told those attending the meeting, “One of the wonderful things about the south is that trees grow. Trees grow back. When they go down, we cringe. But we forget, they grow back.”
Addressing the recommendations of the Tree Ordinance Advisory Committee, the mayor pointed out that the council has a responsibility to consider the budget when passing ordinances. For instance, she said there are costs involved with setting up new boards. “The council has to consider things that the advisory committee may not have considered,” she added.
“We all want to pass a tree ordinance sooner than later,” the mayor concluded.
During the presentation of the ordinance by City Arborist Michael Barnett dealing with the 50 percent tree canopy requirement for residential properties, Councilmember Ashley Jenkins pointed out that previous owners of her property had created a clear area in the backyard for a children’s play area and her lot does not meet the 50 percent canopy requirement of the new tree ordinance. She asked if she would be required to replant her yard if she decided to add a deck or make changes to her home. Barnett replied yes, she would.
“That’s insane,” Jenkins replied.
Councilmember Dianne Fries said she had a real problem “with people being penalized for something that was done when they didn’t own their property”….something that Fulton County allowed to be done.
“Not everyone wants 50 percent coverage,” she said. “I have no sun in my yard. I like it that way. The weeds don’t grow. Not everybody wants it that way. A lot of people want a little sitting area in their backyard, or a playground. I think it is really bad to impose this upon them.”
Councilmember Rusty Paul said he is “under attack by trees. I have had five of them jump at my house in the last two years. Another one jumped at it today.” He wanted to know if he had to replace the trees if he had them removed. He was told that if they fell on their own, he does not have to replace them. However, he was told by Fries that if he decided to build a deck and his lot was less than 50 percent because of those trees being removed, “guess what, you’re planting those suckers back.”
Fries said she thinks it is “bad, bad, bad that we are imposing this on people on something they may have had no control over.”
Council members instructed the staff of the Community Development Department to reconsider two major areas of the ordinance before the next session:
• Work on the structure of the tree bank section of the law to create an incentive for protecting trees rather than just paying into the tree bank to allow trees to be cut; and
• Allowing homeowners to remove trees of 15 inches diameter at breast height without a permit.
During a Jan. 11 community meeting about the tree ordinance, many speakers said they wanted the four recommendations made by the Tree Ordinance Advisory Committee added into the ordinance and criticized the council for dismissing those recommendations out of hand. One such speaker was Nina Cramer of the Long Island Coalition, who also said the new ordinance needs to close the loophole that allows single-family homeowners to cut most of the trees from their properties.
One property owner along Long Island Drive passed out copies of photos of the property next door to his, at 5299 Long Island Drive, where the homeowner had the property totally clear-cut to facilitate the sale of it to a developer, who plans to redevelop the property with more than one sing-family home.
Resident Mark Eden pointed out that the mayor and most of the City Council members were not present at the community meeting to here the comments. Only Councilmembers Fries and Meinzen McEnery attended the meeting.
Sandy Springs Community Development Director Nancy Leathers, who has headed up development of the tree ordinance and was in charge of the meeting, assured the audience the meeting was being tape recorded and careful notes were being taken to pass on to council members.