The city of Atlanta is taking another whack at developing a new tree protection ordinance. The rule is meant to protect trees in the city, but there’s a lot of unhappiness with it. And replacing it has been a challenge.
The old ordinance is about 20 years old, according to City Councilman Matt Westmoreland. For years, city officials have said they’ll work on an update in an effort to maintain the city’s tree canopy or even to expand it, with a goal of 50% tree cover. An analysis released a few years ago found that as of 2014, Atlanta was at about 47%, and losing trees as older, smaller houses were torn down and replaced with larger ones.
“It does an inadequate job of protecting trees, which it’s intended to do,” Planning Commissioner Tim Keane said Thursday at a City Council work session. “Also the process within the tree ordinance is convoluted and unpredictable. So it’s a little bit of a kind of worst-case scenario.”
Last year, work began on a rewrite of the ordinance as part of the city’s new urban ecology framework. But a meeting in November meant to update the public on the new ordinance ended up, as one City Council member referred to it, a “nightmare.” Attendees at that meeting were frustrated with the lack of progress on developing new rules to protect trees. Another tree meeting that was supposed to happen the following night was abruptly canceled.
The planning department released its draft of a new ordinance in March, but tree advocates weren’t happy with that version, either.
“That draft would make it easier to cut down trees, and pay a small fine,” said retired environmental lawyer Chet Tisdale, who serves on the city’s citizen-led Tree Conservation Commission. He and others wrote their own update, which they’ve now given to City Council and the planning department.
“Atlanta needs and it deserves an ordinance that increases our tree canopy while protecting the right of every owner to develop their property in a reasonable manner,” he said at the Thursday meeting.
The planning department has been making changes to its earlier draft, some of which are similar to the citizen-led proposal, such as having trees be considered earlier in the planning process.
The Thursday work session, which was held remotely because of the coronavirus, included about two hours’ worth of public comments in the form of voicemails, all from people who opposed the March draft and supported the alternate proposal written by advocates.
At the beginning of the meeting, Westmoreland said that trees in Atlanta inspire passion and debate.
“Our goal was to have an ordinance adopted by the end of August and COVID has delayed that a bit as well, but we are on track to adopt a strengthened ordinance by the end of this year,” he said.