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City of Decatur hosting tree ordinance open house on Thursday, Oct. 21

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City of Decatur hosting tree ordinance open house on Thursday, Oct. 21

Trees along Commerce Drive in downtown Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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Decatur, GA — As a proposed revision to the city’s tree ordinance makes it way to the Decatur City Commission for approval, the city is hosting an open house to discuss the ordinance on Thursday, Oct. 21, from 4-8 p.m. in the dining hall at Legacy Park, 500 S. Columbia Drive.

The City Commission is considering amendments to the tree canopy conservation ordinance, including additional protection for trees located on single-family residential, town homes and multiple-family residential properties, as well as new requirements for commercial developments.

Attendees will be required to wear a mask upon entering the building and temperatures will be checked.

To learn more about the tree ordinance, click here. In addition to attending the open house, residents can email comments to [email protected]

The intent of the tree ordinance is to encourage the conservation of existing trees and provide requirements for the protection, maintenance, renewal and increase of the tree canopy in the city.

The charge from the City Commission was for city staff to provide revisions to the existing ordinance that address a number of concerns people have expressed over the past couple of years, Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon previously said. The city has been working to strengthen the ordinance to protect more trees.

One major change under the proposed tree ordinance amendments is that property owners would be required to submit a tree removal permit to remove untreatably diseased, dead or hazardous trees. Commercial, high-density residential and institutional properties would have to also submit a tree conservation plan and pay the canopy loss fee. On single-family residential properties, tree planting is required in order to maintain no net loss of tree canopy.

Under the current ordinance, property owners can remove three trees in an 18-month period with a tree information permit. This would no longer apply if the amended ordinance is adopted.

“A tree information permit applies to the removal of three healthy, protected trees in an 18-month period presently,” Saxon said. “That’s to help our staff assess tree loss from a discretionary removal. No charge for it. It helps maintain a record.”

There would be no limit to the number of trees that could be removed, in the draft ordinance, if they are untreatably diseased, dead, hazardous, or have a moderate or higher risk rating, although replacement trees would be required.

“If it is related to land development, then there is a limit on the number of trees that can be removed,” Saxon said. “The proposed standard would be that…on single-family properties [must have] a minimum of 60% tree canopy with conservation of at least 75% of the canopy from trees in fair or better rated condition.”

High-density and institutional properties would be required to have a minimum of 45% coverage, with conservation of 50% of existing tree canopy. Commercial properties would have to conserve right-of-way trees and may satisfy 50% of the canopy replacement requirements with green infrastructure roof systems, rooftop solar, green infrastructure, plantings on city property, and payments to the tree bank.

Saxon said the purpose of the tree removal permit requirements is to limit the removal of healthy, protected trees.

“Our direction from the city commissioners was to prepare revisions to the ordinance where high-value trees were protected, where there was more enforcement and generally try to maintain and improve the canopy that we have,” Saxon said.

The proposed ordinance additionally sets a tree canopy goal of 60%. The current ordinance does not set a tree canopy goal but the goal in the community forestry management plan is 50% citywide.

Earlier this year the city commissioned a tree canopy assessment which found that from 2009 to 2019, the tree canopy was generally measured at around 57% over the entire city.

“This provides for an increase in that canopy, which I think is achievable,” Saxon said. “It’s something that we could assess over the next few years to determine if we’re gaining canopy, which is the objective is to save and protect the high-value trees that we have, reduce the loss of canopy, particularly with the development of single-family residential properties, and determine whether the canopy goal is realistic and that the ordinance is being effective.”

He added that the assessment showed there has been canopy loss over the years, but it has been balanced by gaining trees.

“[The] study indicated that while there are impacts, especially related to the development of single-family homes, that there’s still trees being planted, young trees are growing, canopy from existing trees is increasing. It’s generally been balanced,” Saxon said.

The current tree ordinance additionally provides a canopy credit, in which new trees receive credit for the tree canopy based on 100% of canopy cover potential at maturity.

“When you’re planting a new tree, you’re replacing canopy,” Saxon said. “Under the existing ordinance, you get credit for 100% of the tree’s potential canopy. So you remove a mature shade tree that might have 1,200 to 1,500 square feet of canopy, you would replace that shade tree with a small shade tree that eventually in 25 years would reach maturity and provide that amount of canopy. But you get credit for 100% of that canopy when it’s planted.”

The draft ordinance proposes a canopy credit that depends on the size of the tree. New large trees receive partial credit for tree canopy based on 50% of canopy cover potential at maturity. Medium trees receive 75% credit, and small and very small trees receive full credit.

Tree canopy coverage will also be measured a little differently. Currently, the canopy coverage on a property includes coverage from off-site trees. The proposed ordinance would limit the coverage to trees located on the property owner’s land, boundary trees on the property line, and trees located on public property or public rights-of-way.

So for a residential property, the canopy coverage would only include trees planted on the property and not coverage from a neighbor’s tree hanging over the property.

A new system has been developed to rate trees in the new ordinance, so trees can be rated as poor, fair, good or high. Poorly rated trees would not receive canopy credit.

“One thing that we’re interested in trying in the new ordinance is that trees that are covered with invasives, like ivy, kudzu, wisteria, things like that, that will kill a tree would be rated as poor, and you wouldn’t receive canopy credit,” Saxon said. “The idea would be to encourage removal of those invasives to improve the health and longevity of the tree.”

Other amendments include requiring a canopy loss fee for reduction of community benefits by unnecessary tree removal; allowing the City Commission to grant special exceptions to canopy coverage standards for affordable housing; and having the city arborist prepare and publish quarterly reports.

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