Plans for a new city tree ordinance are in the works in order to address problems with the current ordinance and make it easier to understand, Department of City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane said.
“We absolutely have to determine how to protect old-growth forest and tree canopy,” Keane said.
Tree advocates say the current law’s problems were highlighted in a recent decision to allow trees to be cut down in Peachtree Hills Park.
Keane’s department has put together a team of consultants and is working on funding for a 12-month study on what the new ordinance should encompass. The team includes stakeholders from all points of view, including developers and advocates for tree protection.
Work was done in 2014 to revise the tree ordinance, but it was scrapped after concerns that there was not enough public input and that the development community was not involved enough, Keane said.
“It is hard to make change if it’s done without conversation,” he said. “It must be done with a public process that includes those who want the most conservation to developers on the other end of the spectrum.”
David Zaparanick, the Arborist Division’s arboricultural manager, reiterated that statement, saying the new ordinance must be vetted by the public. Zaparanick said the ordinance definitely needs to be simplified so it is interpreted clearly by everyone, and Keane said that will be one of the requirements for the new ordinance.
Besides issues about allowing enough discussion, Keane also believes the 2014 effort didn’t get to the core of issue of when and how to allow the removal of trees.
The current ordinance basically allows people to pay a fee if they want to remove a tree, Keane said.
“It creates a system where people, instead of designing around trees, write a check,” Keane said.
The commissioner wants the next ordinance to emphasize and provide guidelines on designing around trees instead of removing them.
The recompense fee paid by people cutting down trees goes to the Tree Trust Fund, which, among other purposes, funds the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission, a citizen board appointed by the mayor and City Council that hears appeals on administrative officials’ decisions related to trees.
That commission upheld an appeal May 17 that the decision to allow a storm water drainpipe to be run through Peachtree Hills Park must be revisited.
Atlanta City Council previously voted May 1 to pass an ordinance that will allow a developer, Ashton Woods, to run the pipe through the park and into Peachtree Creek, cutting down trees in the process. The proposal to cut down trees in a public park brought opposition from residents, including Laura Dobson, who made the appeal to the commission.
Dobson’s appeal addressed three problems she had with the council decision: allowing the removal of street trees, the removal of boundary trees (on the border between the park and the construction site), and allowing the drainpipe to be installed in the park.
The only part of her appeal upheld concerned the drainpipe, and the commission requested that the park arborist review the plan and make a recommendation on whether the pipe needs to run through Peachtree Hills Avenue or the park.
When the ordinance was proposed, one of the main objections to the plan from residents who opposed it was that the developers didn’t do a study to determine how long it would take to run the pipe under the street, or if it was even possible.
The developer’s attorney, Carl Westmoreland, said the city did look at that alternative, but it would close Peachtree Hills Avenue, an idea that was shot down so quickly no formal study was done, he said.
“In the context of [the recent shutdown of] I-85, it didn’t seem to be a popular option,” he said.
Dobson believes the commission upheld her appeal because they were trying to give power back to the arborist and make a statement that the arborist needs to be included in decisions.
“I think this was the tree commission trying to stand up for the tree canopy,” Dobson said. “I think they feel the arborist is not allowed to do that because their hands are tied.”
The city did not respond to requests for comment on why the appeal was upheld.
Westmoreland said the commission upheld the appeal on a decision that has already been decided by City Council. “They effectively approved the appeal on an issue that’s not in front of them,” Westmoreland said.