By John Schaffner

A year after the head of Atlanta’s Planning Department fired the city’s senior arborist for apparently being too vigilant in his enforcement of Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance, an evaluation by an outside consulting firm has been quietly underway since the end of July.

A July 24 memo from Commissioner James Shelby, Department of Planning and Community Development, states the purpose of the study by Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) “is to assist the city in identifying key issues associated with the existing ordinance, research ‘best practices’ from tree protection ordinances in other municipalities and formulate recommendations and options that the city could pursue to improve the ordinance and address concerns.”

The memo was sent to City Councilman Jim Maddox, who chairs the Community Development and Human Resources Committee, Parks Department Commissioner Dianne Harnell-Cohen, Bureau of Parks director Ken Gillett and Kathy Evans, administrative analyst in the Arborist Division of the Bureau of Buildings.

Those individuals were invited to participate in “stakeholder interviews” held July 29 and 30 “to gain input of key issues, areas of consensus and priority expectations for the tree ordinance.”

However, one primary organization concerned with Atlanta’s tree canopy and enforcement of the tree ordinance, The Tree Next Door, first heard about the study on Aug. 18.

In response to an inquiry about minutes being available from the stakeholder interviews, Evans emailed Stephanie Coffin and Charlotte Gillis, who is the Parks/Trees Committee chair for Neighborhood Planning Unit F, that the interviews had indeed taken place July 29 and 30.

Evans wrote that a WRT representative mentioned that in the “stakeholder” interview with City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who is a mayoral candidate, that Norwood “suggested interviewing representatives of The Tree Next Door group and other individual residents who have had experience with the tree ordinance.”

However, Dr. Jeri Breiner, one of the founders of The Tree Next Door, only learned of the study Aug. 18 because of an email she received from Tom Coffin, the fired city senior arborist who also is a member of the recently formed organization. Coffin is in a legal dispute with the city over his abrupt firing last year.

According to the July 24 memo from Commissioner Shelby, WRT will analyze ordinances from at least 10 other eastern cities, researching “canopy coverage for zoning districts, equity issues for tree removal at the time of land development versus the per-tree charge at the time of building permit issuance, code enforcement, recompense provisions, the differentiation between types of applicants (i.e. home owners and developers).