By Michael Jacobs
Fired Atlanta senior arborist Tom Coffin is preparing for a hearing that could help win him his job back even as incidents of tree destruction continue to make Buckhead residents long for the days when he was defending the city’s tree canopy.
One recent trees-vs.-development case involves a $2.9 million house being built at 705 Fairfield Road. The clearing of the lot for the construction involved the destruction of 84 trees, a plan that received a tree-removal permit April 16, 2007, according to the records of the city’s arborist office.
But Neighborhood Planning Unit A (NPU-A) board member Debra Fowler spotted more trees cut down just before Christmas.
Arborist Janell Bazile confirmed that those trees were illegally removed. Fines are pending, senior arborist Frank Mobley reported to Fowler and other NPU-A board members.
Also causing concerns are plans to build a $2.1 million house at 3668 Tuxedo Road, where a previous home was demolished in the fall.
Mobley gave preliminary approval to the tree-removal plan for the construction Dec. 16, but arboricultural manager Ainsley Caldwell said his office blocked the posting of the yellow sign indicating preliminary approval and warning of the pending removal Jan. 7. The site development plan was disapproved with a request for changes the next day.
Mobley declined to comment on the Tuxedo Road property without clearance from Planning Commissioner James Shelby, who could not be reached.
Psychologist Jeri Breiner raised the alarm about the Tuxedo Road house early in January after seeing 26 trees marked with red X’s for destruction. “Can you help?” she wrote in an e-mail message to media members and others. “There is no Tom Coffin for us to call.”
Breiner also contacted Caldwell, who told her the status of the tree plan but did not indicate the arborist division was seeking changes to protect the marked trees.
“I am very distressed about the direction our city has taken in terms of preserving trees,” Breiner wrote. “I hope that you can turn this around, but by firing Tom, I fear you have set up a department which will enforce nothing.”
Coffin, who was fired abruptly last summer despite a record as the most active arborist at enforcing the tree ordinance, has not given up on getting his job back.
After Coffin filed a notice Dec. 15 of his intent to sue the city over his firing July 29, his case was referred to the City Council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee for review. Coffin sent the committee an open letter Jan. 15.
“I was fired for informing my superiors of the near total lack of enforcement of the Tree Protection Ordinance by my subordinates and for trying to initiate disciplinary actions against two of them for clear violations of established standards in the arborist office. I strongly believe that I can prove my case in court,” he wrote.
Still, he said his preference is not to go to court, but to return to the position of senior arborist and continue “my nearly 12 years of service to the city in formulating, implementing and enforcing one of its signature environmental laws.”
NPU-A board member Shel Schlegman sent the council a letter in support of Coffin, who hopes the committee will recommend his reinstatement to the full council.