A large tree marked for removal by a controversial Buckhead development was decorated over the Independence Day weekend with a protest display calling for it to be saved.

The tree stands on Delmont Drive in Garden Hills across from the Atlanta International School’s rear entrance. Apparently an oak well over a century old, it had its thick trunk ringed with a garland of flowers and its base decorated with balloons, bouquets and American flags. Signs around the tree said, “Please save me” and “Why me?”

The display at the large tree at the Delmont Drive townhomes over the Independence Day weekend. (Special/Nellyn Van Os)

The “why” is a plan by Hedgewood Homes and Silver Creek Redevelopment to demolish 20 of the 22-unit Delmont Townhomes at Delmont and Sheridan Drive and replace it with 35 single-family homes. The plan has been controversial for traffic, affordability and other neighborhood impacts, which would include removing many old trees. The developers recently gained rezoning approval for the project and next are seeking variances for greatly reduced setbacks at a July 8 City Board of Zoning Adjustment hearing

Signs for the BZA hearing went up on the property early this month — one of them nailed directly to another large tree — while around the same time, many trees were tied with orange ribbons or sprayed with orange paint suggesting their removal.

The crown of the tree spreads wide on Delmont Drive near the Atlanta International School rear entrance. (John Ruch)

The Atlanta Department of City Planning says no tree-removal permits or review have been conducted yet because that happens after any zoning process is complete. The July 8 hearing does not directly involve any tree-removal requests. 

That activity appears to have triggered the save-the-tree display, which combined elements of memorial and protest. Local residents said they don’t know which of their neighbors created the display, which someone largely removed on July 6, leaving only a few wilted flowers.

Various other large trees stand on the Delmont Townhomes property, some marked and some not. (John Ruch)

Don Donnelly, co-owner of Hedgewood Homes, did not respond to questions about the purpose of the tree-flagging and the timeline for any removals. However, he confirmed that the large tree that drew the display is marked for removal because “our arborist has indicated that the tree is dying and should be cut down.”

He said the redevelopment “includes a significant amount of green space preserved in the middle of the site” and would involve planting many new trees. He noted that under the City Tree Protection Ordinance, the developers would pay compensation into a tree-planting fund if they remove more trees than they plant as measured in diameter. 

A closer look at the large tree on Delmont Drive. (John Ruch)

“My company, Hedgewood Homes, has been developing neighborhoods and building homes for over 30 years in Atlanta and if you look at any of our past projects, you will see that our focus is on the landscapes — we are well known for our extensive plantings in our projects,” said Donnelly. “We plant large specimen shrubs and trees so that the new project instantly feels like it has been in place for many years.

“Also, as an Atlanta native, I am constantly reminded how important the tree canopy is to Atlanta when I fly back to Atlanta after a trip away,” Donnelly added. “In an urban redevelopment like Delmont, it is not possible to save a lot of existing trees so our goal is to plant new, large-caliper trees that will very shortly create the green canopy that is so important to Atlanta.”

The tree stands tall over Delmont Drive. (John Ruch)

Photos of the tree-saving display were taken and circulated by Nellyn Van Os, a current Delmont Townhomes resident who refused to sell to the developers and, in an extraordinary deal, accepted an offer from AIS to buy her unit, forcing its entire building to be spared from demolition. Van Os says it’s “very conflicting behavior” for the City and the developer to advocate for protecting neighborhood character and the tree canopy while moving forward with such a project. In a text to the local historical society, she said, “This beautiful tree has witnessed a lot of Buckhead history, as has the [existing] development.”

Meanwhile, Hedgewood Homes recently filed a plan for another higher-density redevelopment a stone’s throw away at 77, 81 and 87 Sheridan. Those properties currently have apartment buildings and some large trees as well.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Van Os accepted AIS’s offer for her townhome and did not seek that deal.

John Ruch

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