Tim Keane, the city’s planning commissioner, speaks at the March 8 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting. (Evelyn Andrews)

Tim Keane, Atlanta’s planning commissioner, said his department is working to strengthen the city’s tree ordinance, making it less about paying fees to remove trees and more about protecting trees.

“It is not about paying us to remove it. It’s about designing around the trees,” he said at the March 8 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting. 

The city is kicking off the development of an “urban ecology framework,” which will help determine what aspects of nature in Atlanta should be “preserved, restored and accentuated,” he said.

A conservation consulting group Biohabitats will lead the effort, and will also be working on a rewrite of the city’s tree ordinance. In the meantime, Keane said the city is working on amendments that could strengthen the current ordinance while the new one is written.

Keane wants to move to a tree ordinance that outlines what trees cannot be removed, instead of focusing on a fee structure that allows developers to clearcut entire lots.

“The thing about the tree ordinance is its not about saving trees, but requiring people to pay fees to remove them,” he said. “That’s not a good transaction.”

Instead, he wants developers to learn how to design around trees.

The ordinance needs language that forces better protection of trees during development and regulates what type and species of tree can be replanted, he said.

But, he said, a rewrite of the tree ordinance is going to take compromise from both groups that want to protect trees and those that want to remove them.

“Both sides say ‘we’re not giving an inch,’ ‘we’re not giving an inch.’ That’s not a place we can be,” Keane said.

He wants to add “common sense” to the ordinance, including making it easier for residents to remove a tree that is in danger of damaging their house.

Because the city has grown less in the past decades than the larger metro Atlanta area, a focus has been placed on providing ways for regional commuters to get to the city. Keane wants to see more focus on local trips within the city, he said.

That focus on regional commuters was “what got us what we have today,” a complex interstate and highway system, but not public transit, he said.

Gordon Certain, the president of the North Buckhead Civic Association, pushed back, saying there needs to be more planning for commuters. North Buckhead roads are constantly congested by regional commuters, he said.

Keane replied that the city is not responsible for providing for the region, and building new roads would only bring more traffic. Instead, Keane is focusing on policies and regulations that could encourage people to use other routes.

In response to a question about city planning staff not often taking the advice or using the recommendations of special public interest groups, or SPIs, Keane said that the city plans to development a more effective replacement.

The city is also putting out a request for proposals for a new zoning ordinance that will, among other fixes, aim to improve the design review process.