Environment, News

What’s Next For Atlanta’s New Tree Ordinance?

Atlanta officials have said they have a goal of 50% canopy cover. According to a 2014 analysis, the city was at 47 percent; not far from the goal, but it’s a 5-year-old number in a time of booming development.
Atlanta officials have said they have a goal of 50% canopy cover. According to a 2014 analysis, the city was at 47 percent; not far from the goal, but it’s a 5-year-old number in a time of booming development.
Credit David Goldman / Associated Press file
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Atlanta City Council may take a harder look at the city’s tree ordinance in the new year, after the Planning Department has taken longer than expected to update the rule.

The tree ordinance protects big trees on private property and sets standards for when they can be cut, but many people say it doesn’t do enough to protect Atlanta’s tree canopy. Atlanta officials have said they have a goal of 50% canopy cover. According to a 2014 analysis, the city was at 47 percent; not far from the goal, but it’s a 5-year-old number in a time of booming development.

For years, the city has said it would work on an update to the ordinance. Several years ago, it started one, then dropped the project. This year, the Planning Department started again, as part of its larger urban ecology project.

Last month, a community meeting on an update to the tree ordinance went a little sideways. Attendees thought the Planning Department was going to present a draft of a new plan, but it didn’t.

“We’ve had so many meetings like this, and the frustration in the room is amazing,” Virginia-Highland resident Stephanie Coffin said after the presentation.

She said she’s frustrated seeing so many trees getting cut down, and she feels like the city isn’t moving fast enough to protect more of them.

“Basically, they’re not moving the needle in terms of rewriting the tree ordinance,” she said.

The day after that meeting the Planning Department canceled a second community event on the ordinance.

City Councilman Matt Westmoreland said he understands how residents like Coffin feel.

“This is a really critical issue,” he said. “Atlanta’s tree canopy is an incredible natural asset to the city, both in terms of the beauty it provides but also as the planet warms. And as we become more dense, that canopy becomes even more important.”

Westmoreland said after the holidays, when everyone’s back to work in January, he’d like City Council to take the lead on the tree ordinance update.

“There’s a way to strengthen our ordinance; there’s a way to protect valuable trees; there’s a way to grow our canopy, and there’s a way for the city to become more dense,” he said.

The advocacy organization Trees Atlanta is asking the city for detailed deadlines, a draft of the new ordinance and for modeling to project how changes in the rules will affect the city’s canopy.

The city didn’t make Planning Commissioner Tim Keane available to talk to WABE, but he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he’s not optimistic about the timeline for a new ordinance.