The city of Atlanta is considering making changes to its tree ordinance for the first time in 20 years, and earlier this month it hosted four meetings (one in each of Atlanta’s four quadrants) to get residents’ input on the plan.

The last of those four meetings took place at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Buckhead June 6. Although the Neighbor could not attend it, Buckhead resident Lisa Frank, owner of the Frank Relations public relations company, was there and provided information on the meeting.

Frank said deLille Anthony, chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods’ Buckhead tree canopy committee, said about 140 individuals attended the meeting. Frank is a member of the committee.

Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane opened the meeting, she said.

“We don’t know what this ordinance will ultimately look like,” he said. “I’m a little frustrated that we don’t have one yet. We’re working through all the input. We want to take the time to get it right.”

According to Frank, the Atlanta Planning Department’s Elizabeth Johnson, the city’s Urban Ecological Framework’s project manager, gave a presentation on the proposed changes to the ordinance, in outline form. The first draft of the amended ordinance is expected to be released in July.

Also, according to online city documents tied to the presentation, city officials would like to increase Atlanta’s tree canopy from 47% to 50% in the future.

Next, about 15 minutes was allotted for questions from residents before asking them to use sticky notes to make short suggestions on the Urban Ecology Framework’s charts after the Q&A.

But before doing that, residents spoke about the problems they see with the current ordinance. Some residents, including tree activists, are concerned the amended ordinance will abolish the city’s appeals process, which provides checks and balances on development.

Frank said residents wanted to tell their stories on topics like:

♦ Enforcement of the existing tree ordinance is inadequate.

♦ Fees developers pay to remove trees are way too low.

♦ Clear-cutting residential lots is leading to bad flooding on nearby properties.

Gordon Certain, president of the North Buckhead Civic Association, stressed the importance of the appeals process. The outline presented at the meeting suggested abolishing residents’ rights to appeal tree removal. The outline also suggested they would stop posting tree removal.

Johnson said, “We hear you loud and clear that people still want appeals and postings.”

Jacqueline Echols, the South River Watershed Alliance’s board president, said there are strong economic benefits to saving trees as storm water infrastructure.

“The (Atlanta) Department of Watershed Management must be involved considering the financial incentives trees provide for storm water retention,” she said.

Garden Hills resident Toni Stapels said, “The city keeps telling us Atlanta has 47% of its canopy right now, yet the data is five years old. Nobody knows how many trees have come down since then. No one has that information. This is unacceptable. The process to update the tree ordinance is taking so long that we keep losing more trees. Who can we hold accountable? Garden Hills hired a lawyer to fight specific developers.”

Peachtree Hills resident Laura Dobson said, “(The) city planning (department) is legislating on perception, not data.”

Johnson said the department has finally hired a computer expert who can isolate that data on tree removal in Accela, a program that allows the public to access to government services online. But no timetable was given for when it might be available, Frank said.

There was loud applause, she said, when one resident suggested there should be severe penalties for developers who are repeat offenders of clear-cutting.

District 8 Atlanta City Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents part of Buckhead, attended the meeting and was interviewed by the Neighbor.

“Atlanta has a lot of things that are unique to it, and (two) of those things are the (overall) tree canopy and essentially the tree canopy from old-growth forests,” he said. “That makes Atlanta really special, and we need to preserve that. We are losing that as we grow. We need to be sure we have a tree ordinance that is able to protect our trees and also balance the need for individuals who are not doing construction to take out a tree every once in a while and to do construction in a responsible manner.

“We need the development plan to be dictated by the land, not the other way around. So you should look at the land and decide what the appropriate development is for that lot, and not come up with a plan and make the lot conform to that plan.”

Matzigkeit said he supports updating the ordinance as long as the neighborhoods and trees are protected, and that development is done “in a responsible way.”

When asked about residents’ and tree advocates’ concerns over the amendment possibly stripping the ordinance’s checks and balances from it, he said, “I don’t know what they’re specifically reacting to, but most of the tree canopy is lost during development and we need to focus on that. I also think citizens who have a heavily forested lot need to be able to take out a tree on occasion, as long as their lot remains heavily forested, and not (have to) jump through a bunch of hoops to do it.

“There needs to be a balance. There needs to be checks and balances and there needs to be some freedom to take out a tree if you’re a resident and your lot will remain above a certain level of the tree canopy.”

For more information on the proposed changes to the ordinance visit http://bit.ly/2WE16HV.

The city is accepting residents’ comments on the issue through July 17 and will hold its next public meetings starting at the end of July. To submit comments or ask questions, email Johnson at eajohnson@atlantaga.gov or urbanecology@peqatl.com.