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Dear Decaturish – The city of Decatur has not met its tree canopy goals

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Dear Decaturish – The city of Decatur has not met its tree canopy goals

Oakhurst resident and environmental attorney Ash Miller on left, and Maria Moore Riggs, a homeowner who lives along Shoal Creek stand in front of a tree contractors attempted to remove on Sept. 8, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.

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Dear Decaturish,

In the most recent issue of the city of Decatur Focus newsletter, the city claims that it has met its goal of increasing the city’s land area overlain by tree canopy. (Full citation below.)

This statement is false, misleading, and irresponsible.

Tree canopy is just what it sounds like — the area of land overlain by leaves. Anywhere that physically is located beneath the leaf of a tree in the summer months. Canopy is critically important because these trees reduce local flooding, reduce heat-island effect, and increase property values. Even the city’s budget touts our tree-lined streets as one of our most defining community assets.

In 2012, the city set a goal of increasing its canopy area by roughly 10% — or from 45% to 50% according to the methods the city was using at the time. This goal was reaffirmed in the city’s current tree ordinance, passed in 2015.

Since that time, sadly, the city has not gained any canopy.

But then this year, the city changed how it measures canopy. And now they are claiming some form of victory, but no actual canopy has been gained — even according to even the city’s most recent study. They are simply comparing apples to oranges, moving the goalposts, pick your metaphor. How the canopy is measured is of course critically important. The city used to use the same method for each study, for at least ten years. From 2005 to 2015 canopy remained consistently around 45% of the city. Now, by changing the method, the city claims it met its goal because the new method shows it was 57% coverage the whole time.

The city’s claim rests on a misreading of its most recent canopy study, which found no canopy gained between 2009 and 2019. But instead of focusing on the trend analysis — as the authors of the study at Georgia Tech advised — the city is focusing on the “top line” number, using a different method of measuring canopy. The city would rather point to the study finding 57% canopy in 2019, and say look, it’s above 50% — even though under these new measurement methods the study *also* found that the city had that same amount — 57% — all the way back in 2009.

The authors at Georgia Tech — to their credit — acknowledged this. They themselves advised not to focus on the number itself, but the trend. The trend tells us the city has not added any canopy. Any way you measure it, the city has not added canopy since it set the goal of increasing it by 10%. The city should not declare victory by changing how it measures canopy.

Taken as a whole, the studies done by the city demonstrate we have not added canopy area since at least 2005. But we do know our canopy has degraded in quality. And unfortunately, we have added a great deal of paved area — 120 acres of pavement was added since 2009 or about 5% of the city’s surface area. So there is now less space to plant trees.

I alerted the city council and city manager’s office to these discrepancies weeks ago, and advised that it would be inappropriate to claim victory by moving the goalposts. Unfortunately, they appear now to have done so. I am disappointed that the city has chosen to rely on dubious logic and analysis to claim a false accomplishment.

Many on the city council and in the city manager’s office have been diligently working towards a meaningful revision to the city’s tree ordinance. Or so they are telling the public — their draft ordinance has not yet been released. The Environmental Sustainability Board has opined that meaningful tree protections and enforcement should be among the metrics the City uses to evaluate a revised ordinance.

But right now the city’s policy towards trees is laissez-faire, at best. No tree in the city is specifically protected. Three trees may be removed from any residential lot at any time without review. In short — it is legal to deforest much of the city, which amounts to a policy of gambling with our natural resources.

I urge the city to revisit its analysis of canopy, adopt a meaningful, strong, protective tree ordinance, and stop misleading the public.

Best regards,

Ash Miller

(City of Decatur Focus, Official Publication of the city of Georgia, April 2021, p. 3: “Giarusso and Edelson studied the city’s tree canopy using aerial photography and on-the-ground site visits and determined that the canopy has remained consistent at about 57 percent of Decatur’s land cover over the 10-year period between 2009 and 2019. This exceeds the city’s most recent tree canopy goal of 50 percent.”)

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