By John Schaffner

Atlanta Planning Department Commissioner James Shelby, at right, answers questions during The Tree Next Door meeting as Arborcultural Manager Ainsley Caldwell listens to his boss.

Does the fact that the city’s arborists report to the head of Atlanta’s Bureau of Buildings—the agency that controls new development—set up the potential for conflicts of interest and an environment that prevents the arborists from doing their job of enforcing the city’s tree ordinance?

The Tree Next Door, a tree protection group, says yes. The city’s Commissioner of the Department of Development James Shelby says no.

That was one of 14 current issues –and the stormiest issue – that The Tree Next Door presented to Shelby and Arborcultural Manager Ainsley Caldwell during a fierce thunderstorm Monday evening, July 26, at the Buckhead home of Dr. Jeri Breiner, one of the founders of the group formed to protect the city’s tree canopy.

Breiner, who presented Shelby and Caldwell with the 14 issues the Tree Next Door organization believes are most important for the city to address, said there is a conflict of interest “because the Bureau of Buildings is trying to “make it easy for people to build and develop and at the same time tell them that there are some restraints.”

She said this creates “a conflict of interest that we are not sure works very well.”

Shelby clearly disagreed.

“On the one side you have the director of the Bureau of Buildings saying ‘We need to get these building permits going here, we need to encourage people to come in, we need to encourage activity’ and then we tell developers they can’t clear cut,” Breiner said. “So there is truly a conflict of interest at work.”

Shelby countered that the Director of Buildings “has a responsibility not only to issue permits for buildings in the city but he is also responsible for Ainsley’s division. I don’t think there is a conflict. His job is to issue permits. My job is to encourage development in the city and to deal with developers on issues and get them resolved.

“But I don’t think there is a conflict of interest between the director of the Bureau of Buildings and the Arborist Division,” Shelby said. “Frankly, I just don’t agree that there is a conflict of interest.”

Sheldon Schlegman, a founding member of the Tree Next Door, pointed out that the developers are major contributors to political campaigns “and we are not.”

“We need the present regime to realize that the regime recognizes that we need the trees of Atlanta just as much as we need buildings. We need it to be a level playing field,” he said.

Shelby told the group of about 30 people, “I am trying to visualize my director of buildings telling developers ‘Don’t worry about it. I will get your building permit through, forget about the tree ordinance.’ I just don’t see that happening. If it is happening, then I want to know about it.”

After asking the commissioner to commit to protection of the city’s trees and enforcement of the city’s tree ordinance, Breiner listed the organization’s complaints.

The group said enforcement of the present Tree Protection Ordinance should be the most important focus, and complained that field arborists do not compare site plans to what actually is planted and that the ordinance is difficult to understand.

The group also contends that builders, architects, landscapers, etc., regularly submit inaccurate or faulty tree removal plans in order to gain permits and they openly admit they add recompense for illegal tree removals into their original budgets and consider it part of the process.

Two of the biggest challenges cited by Shelby during the meeting were to get back on board the arborist that recently was let go due to budget cuts and to educate the citizens about the Tree Protection Ordinance.