Public Feedback - Tree Ordinance Draft Outline

northside meeting -- trinity churchThe City of Atlanta Planning Department unveiled its vision for a new Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) at public meetings which were held in each quadrant of the city on four consecutive evenings, June 3 - 6, 2019. This vision was presented as a "draft outline" on which the pubic was invited to comment during a Q & A session. Attendees were also invited to write their comments on a feedback worksheet as well as post sticky notes to a series of eight different presentation boards in the hall adjacent to the meeting room.

The City Planning representatives at both the June meetings and the tree ordinance rewrite launch held in April said that the feedback worksheet comments would be made available online for public review. To date, no public feedback has been posted by the City, but we did capture the feedback from the boards at the June 6 meeting. Although the boards were available at all four meetings, we only have photographs of the boards from the June 6 North Atlanta meeting. However, attendees who attended other meetings that same week say that the sticky note comments from previous evenings were similar to the ones at the North Atlanta meeting. development standards - sticky note board

The sticky notes on the June 6 boards were transcribed and coded into common themes for a qualitative analysis of people's primary concerns. In many respects, what people are saying they want does not look like what the City is proposing. We encourage the City to step back and reconsider such things as allowing "one free tree removal a year" when this one feature received the most negative comments.

 

 

What Did The People Say?

tpo - empty wordsSticky note feedback from the June 6, 2019 presentation boards show that people are very concerned about being able to plan for trees with clear, measurable goals, both in conserving and replanting trees. They want the City to hold developers more accountable for tree removal, strengthen enforcement, and create more effective deterrents to illegal tree removal. People want protection for all trees, not just those in stream buffers/intact forests. Also, they do not necessarily see some projects qualifying more than other projects for a pre-application due diligence review.

one free tree a yearReaction to being able to remove one tree per year was extremely negative; the City clearly has overestimated citizen need to independently determine which trees they want removed. People want the City Arborist to determine if a tree should be removed, not the property owner, although there is some concern about the way the City Arborist Department is being managed.
 

no postings and appealsReaction to eliminating the appeal/posting process was equally negative. Instead of eliminating the appeal/posting process, people want the process to be made easier, with more lead time, and better notification and instructions on how to appeal, especially for those who are elderly or poor and/or cannot deal with the current complexities and expense of filing an appeal. Also, people want more education about the tree ordinance, protecting trees and habitat, and safety/tree maintenance issues, both for citizens and tree professionals. 

While people want special protection for trees of ecological significance, the “high value” model raises questions as to its scientific objectivity as well as its ability to preserve overall canopy. People are concerned about impervious surfaces, excessive grading, and stormwater runoff -- these factors need to be included in any model assessing which trees are to be saved.

There is a huge lack of public trust in the process the City is recommending to streamline the review process and reward developers who the City arbitrarily determines is “doing everything right”. The proposed new tree ordinance lacks transparency and citizen oversight, and therefore, is viewed as ripe for corruption and abuse. It appears that the City may be placing more emphasis on affordability, mobility, and growth goals than the goal of growing the tree canopy to 50% -- or at least maintaining no net loss of trees.

Please click here to see more detail about what the people said.

   

What Did the City Say?

The  draft outline of the revised Tree Protection Ordinance the City presented the week of June 3 - 6, 2019 was heavily focused on creating a more "streamlined review process" for developers.  Most alarming was the revelation that City Planning was planning to do away with the orange/yellow sign postings and all appeal options of proposed tree removals. The right to appeal a denied tree cutting permit would remain for builders or anyone else who wanted to remove a tree, but the right to appeal to save a tree would be eliminated. No arborist preliminary permitting decision could be appealed in the new ordinance.doing everything right slide

Elizabeth Johnson, the Urban Ecology Framework Project Manager, said that eliminating postings and appeal options was how the City could "reward" developers who were "doing everything right". However, an appeal is never filed against a developer, but a city arborist who issues a preliminary permit that does not comply with the tree ordinance.  Eliminating both the posting and the appeals process eliminates all transparency and the ability to hold the City accountable for the tree removal permits they issue.
And it prevents residents from knowing which
trees are coming down until after they are removed.   

Also, there is no apparent protection of trees offered for Atlanta's residential neighborhoods unless the property is in a stream buffer or contains "high value trees".  Trees on single family residential lots outside of stream corridors also need substantial protection given that is where 77% of Atlanta's tree canopy resides. Also, the City has not defined what is "high value".  Because that definition is an arbitrary one, not a scientific one, it may not be legally enforceable.  To remove protection for trees that are not "high value" is short-sighted: many trees that are not "high value" today are the trees that will grow into the high value trees of tomorrow. Finally, a high value model is meant to provide protection for special trees in addition to what the current tree ordinance provides, not to reduce or eliminate the current protection for trees that don't currently meet the high value definition.

The City also recommended providing a "free and easy" permit to remove one "non-high value tree" a year, but they did not provide evidence showing that this was a even citizen need, much less how it would help the City achieve its 50% canopy goal. 

While the City did recommend moving the planning process for trees to the beginning of the permitting process, the City pointed out that trees were only part of the equation -- that tree preservation had to be balanced with the City's goals for "affordability, mobility, and growth." Unfortunately, the City did not elaborate on which issues would take priority when a conflict arose between trees and affordability, mobility, and growth.

restore - tree canopy

 The City appears to be saying that it can achieve 50% canopy by protecting the stream buffers and a handful of "intact forests", as well as planting 3,600 acres in a "young forest initiative", but they have not provided any data to demonstrate how these measures will enable the City to achieve its 50% canopy goal.  In fact, their entire draft was written without examining any of the tree removal data that has been collected in Accela (the City's online permitting database) since 2008.  This 10+ years of data would show them what types of trees we have been losing, both legally and illegally, as well as where the trees are coming down and for what reasons.  A proper data analysis would enable the City to craft an ordinance to help stem tree loss where the need is most critical. Instead, the City has chosen to move foward with a tree ordinance that is built more on perception than data.

   

What Next?

20190711 121202

On July 11, 2019, Elizabeth Johnson gave a presentation on the tree ordinance rewrite to Watershed Management in which she presented a new timeline for the tree ordinance rewrite.  That timeline, shown above, pushes back the first draft review to August, with the second draft review scheduled for September or October. Also, Johnson indicated that they were open to extending the comment period due to the draft schedule being extended, so if you have any suggestions you'd like to make after the initial comment deadline of July 17, please go ahead and send them in.

Johnson also mentioned a "Tree Bank" that would repckage the Tree Trust Fund by creating a transactional market to trade tree credits from those who take down trees to those who would accept planting more trees.  A concern we have with a credit-based Tree Bank is that trees already are not being planted with all the Tree Trust money collected from recompense fees assessed on removed trees.  If, instead of paying recompense for removed trees, a developer now has to record an IOU in the Tree Bank that comes due only when a tree is replanted, there is no longer any financial disincentive to remove trees since many removed trees are never replanted.   

The August public meetings for the first draft review have not yet been scheduled, but we do know that the Atlanta City Council Community Development and Human Services Committee will be holding a Tree Protection Ordinance Work Session on August 22 at 10 a.m. That work session will be held in Committee Room No. 1 at Atlanta City Hall, 55 Trinity Ave SW.

Until the next public meetings are held, please continue to talk with your neighbors and contact your city officials and city council representatives about what you think should be in the new tree ordinance.  The Tree Next Door provided input on a "key issues" document published by Trees Atlanta which you can use to organize your talking points.  One major concern expressed in the key issues document is what the draft outline didn't include, such as standards for storm water management, minimizing grading to preserve soil, buildable area, setbacks, parking lots, recompense fee formulas, green space requirements, forested land acquisition, an approved planting list, etc. We would like to be given the opportunity to comment on these important components of the tree ordinance before the text of these sections is actually written.   

   
   

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