By Gerhard Schneibel

City staff met Jan. 13 with members of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association to discuss compromising on a policy that could protect homeowners from losing trees screening them from neighboring houses.

At the request of the association, the policy was stricken from Sandy Springs’ development ordinance, which was passed in September. The policy would create an unbuildable buffer zone in the side yards of properties to protect trees between houses. Those buffers would range from 10 to 25 feet, depending on the zoning of the property.

Joe Padilla, who handles government affairs for the homebuilders, said a “blanket resolution” would render residential properties smaller than they actually are, devalue them and limit profitability for builders.

“It’s almost a lot-by-lot situation,” he said. “Some lots don’t have any trees in the side-yard setbacks anyway.”

David Holtzclaw is the vice president of Cumming-based North Atlanta Properties, a two-man operation that builds about two houses each year. Those houses are always in Sandy Springs and range from $2 million to $3 million in market value.

“We do teardowns of old ranch houses and put as big a house as possible on the lot,” he said. “The ordinance would not allow us to put a driveway in the side-yard setback. That forces us to move the driveway into the front yard and make your garage front-entry.”

Houses with front-entry garages don’t sell well, the builders said. They prefer to build houses with side-or rear-entry garages, which conceal cars and create a better streetscape.

Padilla said it would make more sense for the city to focus on streetscapes. “It seems to me you’d almost be better off impacting (trees) on the side of the lot than in the front.”

John Wesserling, the city’s assistant director of building and permitting, said the policy was drafted because citizens have complained about builders clear-cutting lots.

“We’re trying to keep everyone somewhat happy,” he said. “We’re trying to do a balancing act and still make it profitable for you guys to come in and do infill.”

Padilla said an ordinance requiring builders to replace felled trees in the setback would be “much more palatable.” Another option would be for the policy to apply only to larger lots.

If a compromise is reached, a policy addressing side-yard buffers could be added to the development ordinance.