A new Tree Protection Ordinance will come in 2020 one way or another, some Atlanta City Council members say, as they vow to move ahead despite the administration’s still-mysterious halt of a revision process in November.

“I want to pass a new tree ordinance in 2020,” said J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents Buckhead’s District 8. “To me, we need to get something on the table and start to look at real legislation.”

City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.

He and At-Large Councilmember Matt Westmoreland say they intended to reintroduce a 2014 draft rewrite as a starting point. “I certainly have expectations that something will be acted on in the next calendar year,” said Westmoreland, adding that, by the end of the first quarter, “I would like to have a first draft.”

The tree ordinance has been in a rewrite phase for months – or years, through various processes – amid concerns that clear-cutting remains too easy in a city that prides itself on its urban forest.

The process stalled Nov. 7, when the Department of City Planning abruptly canceled a Buckhead community meeting with virtually no notice or explanation. The immediate cause was negative reaction from a crowd – including many Buckhead residents – at a meeting the previous day in South Atlanta over both lack of detail and unhappiness with what details were presented.

Administration officials did not respond to repeated comment requests about the reason for the rewrite’s stall and its current status. Matzigkeit and Westmoreland said they haven’t gotten any further information, either, and that is part of why they and other council members will move ahead with legislation on their own.

“They haven’t provided details to me about that or what [the planning department] is planning to do,” Matzigkeit said. “Our preference would be to work with the administration to get something in place, but we want to get something in place.”

But what kind of ordinance will be drafted? The previous rewrite effort in 2014 stalled amid opposition from developers who said it was too restrictive. Meanwhile, the current version is widely criticized as confusing in detail and difficult to enforce in some parts, while tree advocates say its basic mechanism of allowing the cutting of many trees in exchange for a fee is too permissive.

“If we came out of this and we really had legislation that clamped down hard on clear-cutting lots, that is number one,” said Matzkigkeit about his ideas. “And number two, [legislation] that would allow people on densely wooded lots to take down a tree or two. I think that’s OK.”

“And we need to hold ourselves as a city to the same standard as we do our residents,” he added, referring to tree removals on such public lands as parks.

Westmoreland said that the effort will be, as usual, to strike a balance between tree preservation and the growth of real estate development. “I don’t think those are mutually exclusive,” he said.

In pushing for a ordinance written outside the Planning Department and resurrecting the 2014 draft, the council members are echoing calls from such activists as deLille Anthony of The Tree Next Door, who also chairs the Buckhead Council of Neighborhood’s tree canopy subcommittee.

“The problem is, trees are coming down every month,” said Anthony about the tree ordinance rewrite at the BCN’s Nov. 14 meeting. “We’ll write it ourselves. We’re tired of waiting on the city.”

She also advocated “quick fixes” on clearing up language in the existing code that she called inconsistent or vague.

At the BCN meeting, Anthony presented tree-removal data she said she obtained from city records, whose contents the Reporter could not confirm. She said the data showed that nearly 16,000 trees were cut down in the city in fiscal year 2019, of which more than 9,000 would not be replaced.

In her presentation, she said that illegal tree removals skyrocketed between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 from 276 to 601. Roughly half of trees reported cut were dead, dying or hazardous, which don’t have to be replaced, she said.

Anthony and other advocates have been critical of the rewrite drafts, particularly for a provision allowing homeowners to remove one tree a year and for the continued appearance of a pay-to-remove system. At the same time, there has been criticism that the presentations, based on work by consulting firms Biohabitat and Canopy Works, have remained a series of PowerPoint slides rather than draft legislation.

City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland.

Westmoreland said he liked that the process was “zooming out to a bigger picture” with conceptual slides. But, he said, “I’m not sure why it’s taken six or seven months from when I thought we would be delivered a draft in our hands.”

While administration officials did not respond to questions, City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane recently was quoted in Bill Torpy’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution column as saying the city essentially halted the rewrite because it did not like what the public was saying. “They can only win if everyone else loses. It’s only their perspective that matters,” Keane was quoted as saying about tree activists.

At the BCN meeting, Anthony and Westmoreland had a different take. Anthony called the Nov. 6 meeting in South Atlanta a “revolt” against an essentially unchanged presentation despite months of waiting. Westmoreland told the BCN audience that he attended that meeting and agreed.

“I stood up and apologized for wasting everybody’s time in the room,” Westmoreland said. “We have not done this process right. …We’ve got one chance to protect our canopy.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.