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Avondale Estates City Commission begins discussion of amending tree ordinance

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Avondale Estates City Commission begins discussion of amending tree ordinance

Lake Avondale. Source: Avondaleestates.org
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Avondale Estates, GA — Trees were quite the topic of discussion at the Avondale Estates City Commission work session on Wednesday, May 12. Commissioner Lisa Shortell began a conversation about amending the city’s tree ordinance.

“In that ordinance our trees are defined as beneficial public resources and contributes to our sense of place and identity,” Shortell said. “I have to say, I’ve seen some cracks and I just thought that we could do better and that the intent of our ordinance, in some ways, may not have been transmitted down through all the various and sundry people who work with trees in our city and that we should probably address some of the places where we seem to be not living up to what the actual intent was.”

Shortell is particularly concerned about Avondale’s historic district because people have small lots and when residents take down a tree they aren’t replanting a big tree in their front yard.

“If we continue kind of doing what we’re doing and we don’t pay special attention to how we’re going to make sure trees are replaced and especially in the public realm we’re going to, I think, end up with less of a canopy than we really think,” Shortell said.

Shortell saw three areas needing improvement — amending the tree ordinance, amending the tree list and revisiting the mission, duties and practices of the tree board.

The tree ordinance was passed in 2018 and a tree study was done several years before the passage of the ordinance. The residential tree canopy was basically maintained at 54% from 2009 to 2015 and the commercial area was at about 40%, Shortell said.

The ordinance currently allows homeowners to cut down as many trees as they would like at one time with no replacement plan, she added.

“But we still kind of left this opening where someone could come in and can cut down as many trees as they want with no oversight or no plan in place for replacement and no consideration for what the loss to the public benefit is,” Shortell said.

She and other commissioners acknowledged that protecting trees is important but they also don’t want to overburden residents and make them go through a whole process to cut down trees if they need to.

“I’d like to see how we can balance keeping the shade that we value without putting residents in a place where they have a legitimate reason that they want to get rid of some trees and we’re stopping them for doing that,” Commissioner Lionel Laratte said.

Some ideas Shortell suggested were a stricter definition of land disturbance, limit on inches in diameter and number of trees. Another idea was retroactive canopy oversight after any land disturbance, meaning if someone cuts down all of their trees and then applies for a land disturbance permit, they would have to create a plan to replace the trees then.

Shortell would also like to add some language to the ordinance to clarify intent. For example, including language about public trees, what happens on the public right of ways, language that would ensure all groups in the city are clear about the goal of preserving the canopy.

“Then lastly, I included, maybe we want to include language of consequence for if someone intentionally harms a tree as this has been a reason given that sometimes tall street trees cannot be planted because residents don’t want them and that residents might harm those trees,” Shortell said. “This has been one reason given for certain types of Verge trees being planted.”

Commissioner Dee Merriam suggested another approach of looking at the issue is looking at the land disturbance permit and what the requirements for planting trees as part of the permit might be. She agreed that the city should be more specific about the intent of the ordinance and the goals for trees.

The biggest opportunity to plant and protect trees is in the central business district, Mayor Pro Tem Brian Fisher said.

The commissioners seemed to be in agreement that the tree list should be amended and the role of the tree board should be better defined.

“I think we’ve probably put the tree board in a situation where they’re having to make a lot of these decisions and that may not be what is the best thing for them to do on some of these things,” Fisher said. “So looking at how do we help support that group so their mission is clear.”

Mayor Jonathan Elmore added that he doesn’t see a need for a tree board anymore and thinks the duties of the board can be done by city staff or consultants.

“I think with any board or committee that it needs to satisfy a need that we have that staff or consultants can’t accomplish or that we don’t have the money or resources,” Elmore said. “I think there’s a need to have a tree committee of some sort to help us with the tree planting day but we’ve got like a dozen people on there, they haven’t even met in four years.”

City staff is already working on making recommendations on possible changes to the ordinance and changing the tree list to reflect the goals of canopy coverage where possible, City Manager Patrick Bryant said.

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