City of Atlanta Rewriting Tree Ordinance (Again)

For the third time in nine years, the City of Atlanta is taking another stab at rewriting the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance.

History of Tree Ordinance Rewrite

2010 - 2014

In 2010, the Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, Wallace, Roberts, and Todd (WRT), interviewed a number of tree ordinance stakeholders, (i.e., city departments, tree advocates, builders and developers) to gather input on what changes needed to be made to the tree ordinance. In 2011, WRT worked closely with The Tree Next Door to rewrite the ordinance so that it would be simpler and better organized, address inconsistencies and improve efficacy, and incorporate current arboricultural science. What resulted was a draft that was eventually shelved. In 2014, an updated rewrite was submitted to the City Council Community Development/Human Resources Committee, but this rewrite, too, never made it into law.

2017

In 2017, City of Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane reached back to the city he left in 2015, and hired Charleston-based consulting firm Biohabitats to conduct a year-long assessment, the Urban Ecology Framework, to "define a better future condition for the natural environment, including high-level recommendations about future green spaces, green connections, and green policies." The study, which began in March 2018, was supposed to result in a finished Tree Ordinance rewrite by the time the Biohabitats' scope of work ended this past summer (2019). Now it looks like it may be sometime well into 2020 before we have even a first draft of the new Tree Ordinance based on the updated time table and no first draft having yet been written. Meantime, there were several “mini-updates” presented to the Urban Ecology Framework Technical Advisory Committee back in the spring of 2018, but these updates have not been pursued.

2019

April:

Two public forums were held on April 23 and 24, 2019 to present the results of the Biohabitats' year-long study, which largely focused on protecting trees near waterways and considering ideas for future land restorations projects, which, not surprisingly, is Biohatbitas' area of expertise.  They briefly touched upon the new ordinance in a one page slide, but did not make any recommendations that showed how we could preserve our existing canopy, much less grow it to 50%, the City's stated goal.

June:

Four public forums were held on consecutive evenings in each of the City's four quadrants on June 3 - 6, 2019 to review an outline of the first draft of the new tree protection ordinance.  The outline revealed that the City was indeed focusing on saving trees in stream buffers and large intact forests, but had not given any special consideration to other areas of Atlanta, particularly single family residential neighborhoods where 77% of Atlanta's tree canopy resides.  The City talked about implementing a more "streamlined review process" which moves the planning process for trees to the beginning of the permitting process, but balances tree preservation with the City's needs for "affordability, mobility, and growth." 

Also, the City recommeded eliminating all preliminary permit postings and appeal options for proposed tree removals for developers who the City determined were "doing everything right", an idea that was soundly trounced by the forum attendees. Another proposed concept vehemently rejected by the meetings attendees was the ability for homeowners to be able to remove one tree a year for non-construction purposes.

A couple of weeks after the draft outline was presented, City Council voted that, effective immediately, the Department of City Planning was "to establish a pre-submittal team to conduct and coordinate consultations at the beginning of the permit review process in order to protect and preserve trees in Atlanta."  This resolution did not apply to all construction projects, just those "proposing land disturbance work, impacting setback or boundary trees, and identified for stormwater consultation."

July:

On July 1, City Council formally passed the resolution stipulating that all projects proposing "land disturbance work, impacting setback or boundary trees, and identified for stormwater consultation" should be reviewed by a Pre-Submittal Coordinator in the Department of City Planning prior to submittal for land entitlement review.

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 pushed back the first draft review to August 2019, when a City Council work session to review the draft ordinance, originally scheduled for June, would take place on August 22.  The second draft review would come sometime in September or October.

August:

There was no draft ready for the City Council members to review when the work session took place on Thursday, August 22 (click here for a link to the meeting video).  Instead, Planning Commissioner Tim Keane gave a slide show presentation outlining the current status of the project, which didn't show substantially any more progress from what we saw in June.  And to our consternation, City Planning was still proposing "streamlined postings, appeals and permit process" and "allowances to remove healthy trees" for non-construction purposes, two ideas which were overwhelmingly rejected by the residents who attended the presentation of the TPO Rewrite Draft Outline in June 2019.

The Council members present all expressed significant disappointment that there was no first draft ready yet.  Council member Natalyn Archibong pressed Tim Keane to commit to having a first draft for City Council to review in November "before Thanksgiving", and Keane agreed.

Keane also presented some high level numbers for Accela on the tree removals that have occurred on private property over the past six years.  The numbers look a bit low to us given the number of trees that have been removed on just the properties in which we have been engaged.  However, the City has since revised these numbers downward several times, with the latest version of the annual reports for fiscal years 2014-2019 and first quarter fiscal year 2020 posted to their DCP Reporting website.  We have provided summary statistics for each report as well as an overall trend line analysis on The Tree Next Door website.  We have also provided substantial feedback on how the reports issued by the City could be made clearer.

Just after the August 22 work session, City Planning updated their website with a summary of the feedback they claimed to have received from the community. The Tree Next Door conducted a side-by-side comparison between what City Planning said the public response has been and what we have heard, and found significant discrepancies.  The most notable differences are in regard to eliminating the posting and appeals process and allowing homeowners to cut one healthy "non-high value" tree a year.  Both of these proposed concepts were the most viscerally opposed by the community and yet, it appears that the City heard that the public was at least somewhat receptive.

October:

We learned that a new consulting team, Cincinnati-based Urban Canopy Works, LLC, had been engaged by City Planning to assist Biohabitats in Atlanta's tree ordinance rewrite. The company consists of two women, Rachel Comte and Jenny Gulick, who, prior to forming Urban Canopy Works, created urban forest master plans and consulted on urban forestry projects with Davey Resource Group, Inc.

November:

On November 4, City Planning issued what was supposed to be their first draft of the new tree ordinance that had been promised to City Council on August 22, but it wasn't a first draft. Instead, it was a brief slide show presentation that conceptually outlined how a new recompense formula using a tree value matrix might work.  Plus, the City evidently was still considering how to allow homeowners to take down one healthy tree a year for non-construction purposes, an idea that had been universally opposed when it was intially proposed in June. Other concepts proposed last June, such as postings and appeals, and other items missing from the June presentation, such as parking lot tree requirements, were not even mentioned in this presentation.  Overall, this presentation included much less information than what had been presented five months earlier.

On November 5, the Technical Committee that is supposed to be consulted for input on the tree ordinance rewrite was consulted for the first time on this "first draft" presentation.  The Committee's reaction to this presentation was extremely negative and City Planning was warned that public reaction would be just as harsh.  The Committee also panned the "group exercise" that had been planned for the meeting.

On the afternoon of November 6, a slightly revised version of the presentation was uploaded to the City website, but the revisions were so small as to be meaningless.  The only changes were a new slide listing five addtional aspects that would be considered in future tree ordinance meetings, the deletion of one slide showing a comparison to other city ordinances, some minor tweaking of the recompense formula, and the addition of a request to ask that people limit their questions and comments to two minutes. That same evening, representatives from the two consulting firms, Biohabitats and Urban Canopy Works, presented this slide show at Atlanta Technical College on the south side of Atlanta, the first of their two community feedback meetings. City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane notably did not attend the meeting.

The presentation was so sharply criticized by the meeting attendees -- some who spoke well over their two minutes of allotted time and couldn't have cared less -- that City Planning canceled the second meeting on the north side, with an explanation that briefly appeared on their Urban Ecology Framework website, saying that "the presentation and meeting format were not conducive to receiving feedback on the key concepts that were presented. We therefore chose to cancel the remaining meeting to respect everyone's time."

The local media weighed in on what happened at the November 6 meeting and the subsequent fall out -- from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to The Saporta Report to independent bloggers like Streets of Atlanta. Shortly thereafter, City Planning removed all materials and references to the November meetings from the Urban Ecology website.  (The meeting materials you see linked on this website were saved prior to the City's deletion.)

Now it appears from the City's website that all activity on the tree ordinance rewrite came to a complete halt in August.

Going Forward

While The Tree Next Door has always been supportive of rewriting Atlanta's tree ordinance to make it clearer and result in more tree canopy being saved, we have seen twice now a tree ordinance rewrite that never became reality, even though both times the tree advocates supported the rewrite. Whether we ever get a third chance to rewrite the law is still to be determined, but we do know that we cannot wait another year (or two) for a new ordinance when trees are coming down now due to a lack of enforcement with our current tree ordinance. Indeed, we have wondered what is the point of crafting a new ordinance if it will go as unenforced as our current ordinance.

To that end, The Tree Next Door has identified the five most commonly violated sections of the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance we would like to see addressed NOW so that by the time we do get a new tree ordinance, the enforcement mechanisms are already in place.  Otherwise, the new tree ordinance will not accomplish its overall objective to save the tree canopy.

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