When city officials decided to invite residents in to talk about city operations, the first thing the city wanted to discuss was rules about trees.

Brookhaven’s tree ordinance has been rewritten twice, but the debate among residents continues. Some residents say they still want better protection for the city’s trees.

And city officials say they hear the concerns. “One of the largest topics we get phone calls about is the tree ordinance,” Patrice Ruffin, deputy director of community development, said at Brookhaven City Hall on March 16.

She was introducing a new series of workshops intended to teach the public about the inner workings of government. The city launched the series with a session devoted to the city’s tree ordinance.

“So many people want to move [to Brookhaven],” resident Sally Eppstein said during the workshop. “I just don’t feel like homeowners are being respected that much. I know you want more density, but please be respectful.”

But the city’s Community Development Director, Ben Song, said property rights had to be respected, as well. And, he said, the city wants to encourage “smart development” in the future.

“On a staff level we’re just trying to keep a balance,” he said.

During the “Brookhaven 101” session, Seth Yurman, city development services manager, said the tree ordinance applies whenever someone applies for a land disturbance permit.

The goals of the people who drafted the ordinance, he said, were to protect large “specimen” trees, set standards for planting and replanting trees removed during building projects, and to protect trees during construction.

Tree protection is calculated in diameter inches. New requirements say that replacements of specimen trees must provide 1.5 times the total inches removed.

City arborist Kay Evanovich said the ordinance states that 100 inches of trees per acre must be preserved, trees can be removed from buildable areas, and specimen trees removed from buildable areas must be replaced by saving additional trees or replanting new trees.

Evanovich said that an absence of an ordinance could result in reduced aesthetics, lower air quality, loss of wildlife habitat, property damage and loss of life.

“That’s why it’s so important to get this right,” she said.

In February, City Council continued its effort to tweak the tree ordinance, which it modified in August from the DeKalb County version of the law that the city originally had copied.

On Feb. 10, the council voted to change the required replacement of any “specimen tree” a developer removes from a ratio of 1-to-1 to 1-to-1.5. The council deferred a decision on raising or removing a cap on the fee developers pay when unable to replace specimen trees. The current cap is $62,500.

The revised ordinance says that trees in stream buffers, flood plains and detention pond areas do not count in acreage calculations and that removal of trees from any of those areas requires approval.

City officials have pledged to continue working on the ordinance with citizen input. At the March 16 workshop, citizens continued to push for more tree protection.

Resident Lissie Stahlman, part of a group of citizens concerned about tree protection, said that she hopes to continue the talks her group has had with city officials. “I hope we will have a chance to sit down again,” she said.

Katherine Nash said she felt the fines imposed by the city for non-compliance with the tree ordinance weren’t high enough when “you talk about a $3 million development.”

City arborist Kay Evanovich said at a “Brookhaven 101” workshop that the absence of a tree ordinance could result in reduced aesthetics, lower air quality, loss of wildlife habitat, property damage and loss of life.

Ann Marie Quill

Ann Marie Quill is Associate Editor at Reporter Newspapers.