The City of Atlanta has been working for years to put together a new tree protection ordinance, the set of rules regarding which trees can be cut down for construction, and how to replace them.
The Planning Department now has a new draft ready for review and headed to City Council. That’s after a fractious process, with the agency working to bridge differences between tree advocates and homebuilders.
Advocates have been calling for a new ordinance to help protect more of Atlanta’s big old trees.
“We’re losing our high-value canopy. I mean, everyone sees it,” said Kathryn Kolb, director of the environmental group, Eco-Addendum.
She’s especially worried about trees on single-family lots that get cut down when smaller houses are torn down and replaced by bigger ones.
“I know a lot of people where trees have come down, maybe on their street or in their neighborhood, and they just kind of — they put their head down — they go, ‘I just can’t drive down that street anymore,” she said.
But protecting trees on private property is complicated. Builders have to navigate city rules on zoning and stormwater, too.
Kolb, who’s weighed in on the new proposed ordinance as part of a group of advocates who had drafted their own model ordinance, said builders could do a better job of planning around existing trees. She said the new draft is better than what the city had previously proposed, but she said it could still use some work.
One element she’s pushed for, which is included in the city’s draft ordinance, is moving up consideration of trees to the beginning of the permitting process.
That’s a change that Atlanta homebuilder Jim Cheeks said he can work with.
Cheeks, owner of Fortas Homes and president of the Inner Atlanta chapter of the Homebuilders Association, has also been involved in developing the new ordinance.
“No one’s anti-tree,” he said. “You want to be in a neighborhood that has trees. You want to sell a house that has a lot of trees.
But, he said, he’s worried that neighborhoods that have had less investment in the past could end up with hurdles to development with a stricter ordinance. And he said he wants the city to study the economic impact of a new ordinance before adopting it.
He said he believes if both sides – builders and tree advocates – walk away from the process unhappy, that’s probably as good as it’s going to get.
“It’s a real rock and a hard place,” for the city, he said. “They really want development. They want sensitive development. They want density. But they’ve also got very influential people, and everybody wants to save trees.”
Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane said he thinks the new ordinance is hitting the balance, and he said it’s a much better document, following the months of meetings with people on both sides. He said the draft should do a better job of protecting high-quality trees, and create better incentives for planting new ones, when trees do get cut down.
“I think we’re going to continue to have people on all ends of the spectrum of this conversation disagree with this,” he said
The draft now goes to a city council committee, which expects to dig into it next month.