Sandy Springs expects to have more than $1 million in its Tree Fund, so staff proposed planting and education ideas to the City Council to improve the city’s tree canopy.

Sandy Springs may increase educational activities, tree plantings and possibly hire an urban forester under recommendations on how to use a Tree Fund that’s grown to $920,000 and is expected to gain another $300,000 in revenue this year. Typically $150,000 is spent each year from the fund.

Kayaks at Morgan Falls Overlook Park trail next to Chattahoochee River

The city’s Tree Fund was established to replace tree canopy or for its preservation, said Catherine Mercier-Baggett, the city’s sustainability manager, at a Feb. 15 City Council meeting.

Councilmember Andy Bauman asked her if the city needed to take a look at its tree conservation ordinance and its system of fines for violating it.

Clear cutting is affecting his district, Councilmember TIbby Dejulio said. He said more education, enforcement and review by an arborist may be needed.

The discussion about trees comes just weeks after residents spoke out at a January council meeting, saying that the city doesn’t have a strict enough tree ordinance. 

Existing uses of the fund include tree plantings at city projects, parks and facilities. The funds also pay for a survey of all public trees.

In addition, a program with Trees Atlanta plants right-of-way and front yard trees at residents’ homes. Trees Atlanta provides three trees per property.

“There are some restrictions, but generally, most homeowners can get up to three trees planted by Trees Atlanta for free, thanks to Tree Funds. So if you have neighbors who are interested, let us know,” she said.

Under a maintenance plan, the city also uses funds for maintenance of public trees.

“The last initiative that we are paying for with the Tree Fund is controlling invasive species in our public parks,” Mercier-Baggett said.

A dedicated person goes to the parks and takes care of the English Ivy, Kudzu and other invasive species.

She presented several pilot programs staff recommended:

  • Property acquisition
  • Landmark tree maintenance
  • Planting on private property
  • Educational activities

Mayor Rusty Paul, Councilman John Paulson and other councilmembers saw value in adopting educational activities such as those in Atlanta and Decatur.

The staff recommended a dedicated educational program that included seminars on tree selection and care, pruning classes, invasive removal workshops and volunteer events, activities with children and an Arbor Day celebration.

“The education project, I think, is crucial. A lot of people don’t understand how important removing those invasives are,” Paul said. “Not only do they do damage to the trees, but there we have a real problem with puppy dogs being bitten by copperheads because English Ivy is just a breeding ground for snakes.”

Sandy Springs could copy how Atlanta, Decatur and Peachtree City acquire property with at least 75% canopy coverage, old growth or sensitive habitat such as wetlands, steep slopes or habitats for endangered species.

“They would not be developed as an active park. But there could be some light recreation that has a light footprint, such as trails,” Mercier-Baggett said.

In a cost share with property owners, the city could manage landmark tree maintenance, which are hardwoods of 27-inch diameter at breast height or pines with 30-inch diameters. The city would provide 25% of the maintenance funds up to $1,000 every four years and the property owner 75%. The maintenance plan for each landmark tree would be based on a certified arborist’s treatment plan.

Council was a bit less enthused about cost sharing for planting on private property.

In this pilot program, the city would provide trees, soil and planting, with the owner responsible for site preparation. Equity planting would be for multi-family units with households earning less than 80% of the area’s median income (AMI). Single unit properties under 80% AMI also would be part of the program.

Nonresidential properties such as legal, nonconforming parking lots would be included.

Councilmember Melody Kelley asked what kind of guardrails would be in place to make sure the property owner does their part and doesn’t just remove the trees later.

Mercier-Baggett said those details have been ironed out, but the city might draw up a contract with the owner that if the tree is damaged somehow, because of the owner’s fault, then they would have to repay the funds or replant it.

“I would have to hear a lot more about the private property initiatives because I think that is a slippery slope. And especially the apartments are being bought and sold for crazy amounts of money,” Councilmember Jody Reichel said.

For the city to go in and plant trees, she’d hope that the new owners would maintain the property.

Mercier-Baggett also said staff recommended hiring an urban forestry coordinator for oversight and management of all Tree Fund programs. The position could also provide the Community Development Department’s arborist.

“At this time, our arborist in Community Development is full time dedicated to permit review, which means that there’s a gap. There’s a need for our public projects,” she said.

Staff will continue to develop details for the pilot projects to bring back for discussion.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.