Mulch – More on Decatur’s new tree regsBackyard water oak. Photo by Kathryn Kolb, courtesy of Trees Decatur
When it was finally over, Decatur’s new tree ordinance passed with relatively little fanfare.
Commissioners on May 19 voted unanimously to approve it, even though polling among residents showed strong opposition to it. The new ordinance sets new rules on how many trees residents can remove and at what cost, while promoting growth in the city’s tree canopy.
Mayor Jim Baskett said the most recent poll had fewer respondents than previous ones. In January 237 residents commented on the ordinance in January as it was then written, and 77 percent were opposed or strongly opposed to it. In April, public input waned: 80 percent of the 35 residents who responded were opposed or strongly opposed to the ordinance.
The commission meeting room was much quieter during the May 19 vote, too.
Baskett made note of that.
“We’ve tried to address many of the issues and concerns that were brought to us,” Baskett said. “The fact that this room is not full of people tonight may be construed as we wore people down. It may be construed as the fact that we’ve addressed a lot of the issues people had and they didn’t feel as strongly about it.”
City Commissioners first started looking at the ordinance in October of 2013 and enacted a 90 day moratorium on tree removal. The moratorium ended Jan. 24, three days after city commissioners scrapped the first version of the ordinance after a public outcry. At the May 19 meeting there were some speakers, but it wasn’t the barrage commissioners faced back in January.
Commissioners did make one amendment to the ordinance, to provide a sliding scale for property owners that have greater than 45 percent canopy coverage. The ordinance sets a no net loss canopy goal of 45 percent, based on the city’s current level of tree cover.
Some other important changes in the ordinance, as noted by the city:
– Property owners will be able to remove up to three healthy trees within 18 months without penalty. The owners will be required to fill out a free informational permit that will help the city track changes to its canopy.
– It defines a protected tree as one being 6 inches or greater in diameter at breast height.
– The “no net loss” requirement goes into effect whenever a project requires a land disturbance permit.
– The trigger for the replanting requirement is a 15 percent increase in a property’s impervious cover or gross floor area.
The city is currently working to hire an arborist who will enforce the new ordinance.
Members of Trees Decatur, a group that fought hard for stronger regulations, said the ordinance wasn’t perfect, but better than what the city had.
“Personally I was hesitant about the first roll out,” Trees Decatur member Catherine Fox said. “I thought it was too overreaching. I think that changes have been made to the ordinance that have improved it greatly.”
Chris Billingsley said the new ordinance is still too overreaching.
“It’s supported by a small group of individual people in the city of Decatur,” Billingsley said. “Your own website says the vast majority of people who responded to a request were opposed to it. It expands the power and reach of the government.”
The work on the ordinance isn’t over. The effective date of the ordinance is July 7. City Planning Director Amanda Thompson said any projects that are currently ongoing won’t be affected by the new ordinance. There will be public workshops on the new regulations and the city will create new forms to help implement it.
There will be a period of adjustment for residents, Commissioner Scott Drake said.
“I do think in this case it is a confusing new ordinance so I think there’s going to be an education that needs to happen,” he said. “I think the arborist is going to be very busy answering questions.”