By Michael Jacobs

The head of Atlanta’s arborist office learned firsthand Jan. 6 how passionate Buckhead residents are about trees and how much they miss fired senior arborist Tom Coffin.

Making an unscheduled appearance at the monthly meeting of Neighborhood Planning Unit A (NPU-A), arboricultural manager Ainsley Caldwell faced a succession of questions, complaints, requests and fond reminiscences of the days before Coffin was abruptly fired during the summer.

“We all had his cell phone number. You called him, and he was there,” NPU-A’s secretary, Linda Trower, said about Coffin. “He was our shining knight.”

Ray Mock, presiding over his first meeting as NPU-A chairman, told of a time he spotted a man on a roof at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, cutting a tree in half for a billboard, and he called Coffin at home. “He came out, and he called the police. And the policeman didn’t know the ordinance, and Tom Coffin cited the ordinance. He cited it to the officer, and he cited the guy, and they impounded his truck — 10 o’clock on a Sunday night.”

“Coffin was a big loss. He cared. He genuinely cared,” Debra Fowler said.

Meeting attendees were unhappy that Caldwell was unwilling to give them his home phone number. He noted that the city’s tree protection ordinance gives police the task of responding to tree emergencies, but he was told that police don’t know the ordinance and won’t answer tree calls anyway in this time of city furloughs and other budget cuts.

NPU members said they understand that the arborist office is overworked and understaffed and that the tree ordinance is flawed.

Trower cited the “no trees impacted” box on applications for building permits, allowing people to avoid arborist scrutiny by lying. She noted such a case on Blackland Road where 14 trees were lost.

“I just think this is a terrible policy, this ‘no trees impacted,’ because it needs to be checked on. It just opens the door for people,” Trower said.

Caldwell said his office made surprise inspections of only 10 percent of those claims but now can check them all because permit activity has dropped.

“This law was cumbersome from the beginning,” Mock said. “It’s been rewritten to death. It still doesn’t work. … That’s why there is a midnight tree business flourishing in the city limits.”

He and others said the illegal cutting of trees happens at night and on the weekends, precisely when the arborist office is unavailable. They asked for a hotline and some kind of process so they can serve as Caldwell’s eyes on the street and save the trees, rather than just punish people after the fact.

Caldwell said one of the ordinance’s shortcomings is that it’s often cheaper for people to pay fines than to work around trees. “For folks with lots of money, the fines are small,” he said. “Everybody who thinks they can get away with it tries.”

He promised to look into several questionable tree situations mentioned at the meeting and to explore the possibility of a hotline.

Caldwell also announced an initiative by his office to assess Atlanta’s tree canopy with flyovers of the city.

He said the initial findings should be available around July, leading to NPU discussions about tree policies and goals for preserving or expanding the tree cover.