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Decatur Environmental Sustainability board, city staff continue tree ordinance discussion

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Decatur Environmental Sustainability board, city staff continue tree ordinance discussion

Photo caption: The Decatur Environmental Sustainability Board met with Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon and City Arborist Kay Evanovich on Friday, April 30, via Zoom to further discuss revisions to the tree ordinance. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Decatur, GA — The Decatur Environmental Sustainability Board met with city staff on Friday, April 30, to review the revisions to the tree ordinance.

“Our task from the City Commission was to provide revisions to the existing ordinance that address a number of the concerns people have expressed over the past couple of years,” Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon said.

He added that the city wants to find a way to plan for trees first, save the best existing trees and provide more effective enforcement. The charge from the City Commission was to have a realistic tree ordinance draft by the end of June.

The biggest concern is the redevelopment of single-family homes, which is the zoning for most of the city. That’s where there seems to be the most tree canopy loss, Saxon said.

“I would say discretionary tree loss…about single family homes where it just appears that it’s just convenient to remove trees so people do it,” Saxon said, adding that the controls there need to be strengthened.

“But there are other areas we also need to look at,” he said. “They would be the high density, the townhouse type developments like you see at Forkner [Drive] and Church Street.”

Another area of concern the ESB discussed was tree canopy coverage. The tree canopy coverage goal mentioned in the first draft of the ordinance remained unchanged at 50% and the ESB recommended that be increased to 63%.

“That is problematic because we switched our metric, so we are using a metric now that has roughly 12% or so, 13% differential,” ESB member Rich Malerba said. “So that differential needs to be taken into account. Moving 50% to 63% represents no change in canopy coverage over what we had in the past.”

The city had 47% coverage when the 50% goal was set, Malerba said, but the new metric put that same coverage at 57%.

“Now we have 57% canopy coverage based on our new metric. It’s still 47%. Nothing has changed,” Malerba said.

City Arborist Kay Evanovich explained that the original reason for increasing to 50% around 2013, arborists and others working on climate change at the time agreed that if cities could get up to 50% then that would be enough canopy coverage to address climate change issues.

“Since then there are two schools of thought going on that in some cities that are heavily forested you can increase that canopy to 55% or 60%,” Evanovich said. “That’s been the limit and nobody has said definitively it should be one or the other.”

Evanovich said that 63% may not be achievable and maintainable. She added that 50% is maintainable and 60% may be also.

“So I think really 60% is really pushing it at the max for canopy cover for a city like ours,” Evanovich said. “So, I’m just saying going forward I think if we set it at 60% then we are growing canopy. We are trying to achieve that 60% through more preservation and more planting and continued growth on the ones we’ve already planted. I think that’s a good direction for any city to go in.”

The ESB additionally added a section to the tree ordinance that defines priority trees as a “category of trees of high excellent value that provide exceptional ecosystem, aesthetic, or other functions to the City,” the draft says.

Saxon said the city has discussed the concept of priority trees and it’s something they want to explore further.

“The overall point, I think, from [the] committee was we want our canopy to be made up of the highest quality trees,” ESB member Mary Jane Leach said.

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