An open letter to elected officials on the Sandy Springs Council re: “getting to balance” on the 2007 Tree Conservation Ordinance.

Karen Meinzen McEnerny

Kudos for your support on Sept. 3 to send the Tree Conservation Ordinance back to staff for recommendations on how it can be improved based upon a framework of eight issues. I understand staff will be ready in November to bring us their findings.

That vote of support showed me you are hearing from our citizens who live and work in our community, and care about preserving trees in their neighborhoods. Kudos to you for the part you played that increased the tree canopy measurement between 2005 and 2010 from 55 percent to 59 percent, and for the addition of ½ staff person to review all grading, site and tree survey plans for accuracy before one inch of soil is moved on a residential lot under construction.

This pre- and post-site inspection process was approved April 3, 2012, when staff found “inconsistencies” in the submitted plans and field conditions in 21 percent of the total residential building plans submitted for review.

I join you in recognizing the well-documented, positive benefits of a healthy tree canopy, as recently stated in the city’s press release of Sept. 25: “From an environmental perspective, trees aid in improving air quality, provide a reduction in temperatures, and assist in lowering energy consumption. From an economic perspective, trees are tied to increased property value, in particular, in highly walkable neighborhoods.”

But our community’s recognition of the value of tree canopy goes even farther. It affects the quality of life in terms of the character of their neighborhoods and personal property rights. Remember that the grading that occurs when a lot is being re-developed with new housing by far and away causes the loss/death of more tree canopy than individual owners deciding to remove existing trees from their properties.

That’s why I believe “getting to balance” with changes to the Tree Ordinance needs to focus on the provisions dealing with construction and redevelopment. Preserving the character of our neighborhoods, which some have compared to the “jewels” of our city, means minimizing the loss of existing tree canopy through grading in the side and rear buffers between lots.

Citizens have complained of “clear-cut and graded” lots that leave a big hole on their street, and are out of character to the rest of the neighborhood — sort of like a person’s smile after losing two front teeth! This, in my view, was not intended by the first council which approved the existing ordinance in 2007. More importantly, it is not balanced as currently written because it adversely impacts the personal property rights of adjacent and down-gradient owners… those neighbors whose own trees and tree roots have been damaged by grading in the buffer of the lot being redeveloped.

Why the focus on residential construction, specifically single-family detached housing? Because we have no more large swaths of undeveloped land in Sandy Springs, so all residential development is infill.

The preservation of as many existing trees as possible in the side and rear buffer areas helps retain the character of the neighborhood, yet still allows the developers and new homeowners the flexibility to replant in the front yard or leave the front yard sunny and open, depending on personal preference.

To show the scale of redevelopment of single-family lots and the pressure on the existing tree canopy that results, 52 percent of all permits issued by the city (224 permits) between January 2012 and June 30 were for single-family detached housing. If each lot averaged 1 acre, and each were substantially graded to allow much larger homes and related outdoor amenities like pools and tennis courts, that’s at least 175-200 acres of land cleared. That is significant existing tree canopy loss and related adverse affects on the character of neighborhoods in our city.

Replanting new trees is important, but it won’t bring back the character of an extensively graded area for 15 to 20 years, at best.

We can do better for our citizens. I join you in working toward a more balanced ordinance on the provisions that affect the residential infill construction.

Karen Meinzen McEnerny has served two terms on Sandy Springs City Council. She is not seeking re-election.