By John Schaffner

While the Atlanta’s Planning Department was still embroiled in the controversy surrounding the July 29 abrupt firing of the city’s senior arborist, Tom Coffin, Buckhead residents now charge that an arrest citation was issued against them for failure to remove a “hazardous tree” that a city arborist told them was not hazardous and for which he originally denied a tree-removal permit.

The arrest citation apparently was instigated by Ainsley Caldwell, who heads up the arborist section within the city’s Bureau of Buildings, after Caldwell changed the inspection report of arborist Stanley Domengeaux to cite the tree on the property of Jim and Heather Kercher at 510 Collier Road as being “healthy but hazardous” and approved the tree for removal.

One problem was that the arrest citation was issued for the Kerchers on Sept. 16, the same day the changed tree-removal permit (approval) was mailed from City Hall. The Kerchers did not receive the mailed permit until Sept. 17.

Meanwhile, two attempts were made to serve the arrest citation Sept. 16 and 17, but the Kerchers were not home to receive it. It was finally delivered Sept. 18.

The citation accused the Kerchers of a “violation of Atlanta Housing Code 19F, in that the accused failed to remove (a) hazardous tree that is in danger of falling.” The Kerchers were requested to appear in court on Thursday, Sept. 25.

The officer who delivered the citation was unable to explain the citation and how the Kerchers could receive the citation before any written notice and before receiving a permit from the city to remove the tree.

According to the Kerchers, the citation was revoked only after “much backpedaling” in a meeting with Ibrahim Maslamani, the head of the Bureau of Buildings; Caldwell; and James Shelby, now acting commissioner of the Department of Planning and Community Development.

This latest incident involving the city’s arborists division began Sept. 2 when the Kerchers received a certified letter from Vance, who lives with Hall at 2020 Walthall Drive. The letter was titled “formal notice of dangerous tree hazards and conditions.”

Vance and Hall wanted the Kerchers to cut down a pine tree that is on the Kerchers’ property. Following proper procedures, Heather Kercher submitted an online application for evaluation by a city arborist of all trees on the property.

She met with city arborist Domengeaux on Sept. 11, and he informed her the tree removal permit would be denied, noting the tree was “perfectly healthy.” The arborist reportedly responded to a second online application by Hall. She made sure Hall spoke with the arborist and understood his decision.

Domengeaux filed his report with Caldwell the following day, stating he inspected “and denied a perfectly healthy 26-inch pine tree in the rear corner of 510 Collier Road.”

It was his professional opinion “the tree should not be approved for removal.”

The Kerchers say their neighbors “were unhappy and apparently made calls to Caldwell and Shelby. Somehow, that decision was overturned.”

In response, Caldwell wrote that he had visited 510 Collier Road to “provide an independent second opinion. The tree is healthy but hazardous.”

He changed the decision of the report to state the tree is healthy but hazardous and it was approved for removal. That is when the arrest citation saga began.

Jim Kercher said: “We find it curious that our neighbor, who works for the government, could just make a few calls and have the decisions overturned — especially since he has had many trees removed in the past two years that were perfectly healthy.”

The Buckhead Reporter sought comments from members of City Council, but Dist. 8 Councilwoman Clair Muller was the only one who responded. She said neither neighbor in the dispute had called her office. “I have asked our planning commissioner and our acting planning commissioner ( now Shelby) to provide me with information regarding this citation but have not yet heard back.”

There is no indication what happens next. But Heather Kercher’s reaction is clear: “I am disturbed by this situation and view the arrest citation as harassment by the city.”