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Dear Decaturish – Decatur’s proposed new tree ordinance penalizes homeowners

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Dear Decaturish – Decatur’s proposed new tree ordinance penalizes homeowners

Trees along S. McDonough Street. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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Dear Decaturish,

At Friday’s meeting of the Decatur Environmental Sustainability Board, one member commented that the audience for their work on a new tree ordinance “may have been self- selected.”

Despite that moment of clarity, the board voted to increase their recommendation on the already high lot coverage goal beyond 60 percent. In fact, they were debating up to 70% as the recommendation. At that point, staff contended the root zones, etc. would make things like sidewalks, pipes and other basic public needs a problem.

During the conversation, the word “aspirational” kept getting thrown around. That is that it’s a great idea for Decatur to increase its tree coverage where it can – even though the studies found we are already at 57 percent citywide and maintaining. Get that, we are not going backwards. Trees are growing and being planted at the same rate as trees lost to development – and the occasional homeowner who decides they need to lose a tree.

Normally, when a goal is aspirational, you try to achieve it by encouraging folks to step up when they can. You offer them incentives to go above and beyond. You hand out free trees and tax breaks for folks who want to do more.

But, their version of aspirational, in writing, looked like a lot of new regulations, rights taken away from homeowners, new fees and costs and, best yet, a whole lot of penalties. Yes, the new ordinance that’s being proposed is all about getting us to this “aspirational goal” through harsh penalties and regulations.

Here’s the funny thing. The study the city did showed that homeowners aren’t even a problem. In fact, we already, on average, far exceed the “goal.” The study found roughly 75% coverage in residential areas. That’s with the current right of any Decatur homeowner to cut down up to three trees over 18 months without any regulation. Oh, and the current regulations allow homeowners as little as 25% coverage.

The new proposed laws take away a homeowner’s right to decide on their own that they have too many trees, don’t like the placement of a tree or feel that a tree is dangerous. In this system you’d have to pay for a tree survey, likely $500 or more, pay for permits, arborists, etc. And then, you might still be rejected.

Worse still, your average homeowner can run afoul of some of the ideas being considered on both ends. Say you want to build a fence or replace an aging deck, then you go to the city and seek a permit. When you trigger this tree ordinance, then you’d need a tree survey – again, a costly new fee – and its findings would be important. Even with no tree loss, you could be ordered to plant trees all over your lot to reach the new “aspirational goal” turned mandate. So, a lot with say 30% coverage today would have to more than double it by planting new trees.

Again, another costly new expense.

On the other hand, if your lot was a dense forest with 85 % coverage and you impacted 2 or 3 trees that had grown up around that deck you wanted to replace, you’d get hit too – even if those trees left you well above the standards of the law. This proposal could levy penalties for tree loss that, in that situation, could cost $10,000 or more.

So, rather than reward folks who’ve been essentially paying into the tree bank by having way more trees than the city’s highest “aspirational goal,” this concept would penalize them for failure to wildly exceed the goal forever. Just exceeding the goal wouldn’t be good enough.

And, again, this is with no identifiable problem. Neighborhoods average 75% coverage. Oddly without being forced by government. Why? People value trees without being forced. They want trees that they like to provide shade and beauty, plus other environmental benefits.

Look around the city today. How many folks woke up and just, for no reason at all, decided to whip out a chain saw and start hacking away at trees? How many called tree companies to strip their lots clean – just for the fun of it? The record proves that’s not a problem. Again, people love trees and don’t need to be forced. Beyond that, tree management is costly on its own. Anybody who wants to take down a tree of any sizes knows that bill can easily exceed $5,000. Those kinds of fees are self-regulating. No rational person just wastes $5,000 without good reason. That’s why we have 75% coverage today.

One of the bizarre side effects of this so-called effort to improve sustainability crashes right into another one – home gardening. Local and home-grown food are often a key component of any sustainability plan. In the south, people love to grow tomatoes, sometimes okra, peppers and other vegetables. To thrive, those plants need ground with 8 hours of full sun. That would be virtually impossible for those who comply with this ordinance. With 60-70% shade coverage Decatur would eliminate home gardening.

What is the policy reason to do that? Do we hate home-grown tomatoes so much that harsh penalties have to be put in place to stop hobby gardeners?

These regulations have an economic impact as well on the people with the least means.

They aren’t going to stop a builder from buying a 1930s bungalow in Oakhurst, tearing it down and building a much larger home. That smaller house likely has 3 or 4 older, larger trees nearby that won’t all survive. The builder will factor whatever cost that means into his project. It may impact the cost of the house – driving the sale price down. It may impact what’s built. But they will work that out.

Where these kinds of penalties really play out in a harsh way is to folks doing a small project of just a few thousand dollars. They are extremely harsh for anyone who isn’t rich. Think about the long term and elderly folks we try to protect with tax exemptions and the like. This hits them hard, and directly. I know it’s hard to believe but for some folks in Decatur a $10,000 tree fine would be impossible to pay. That would then prevent a homeowner of more modest means from improving their home.

Is that really what Decatur wants – especially when homeowners aren’t even an identified problem?

Look at the study. All the places with minimal trees are in commercial and industrial zones, and own land owned by the regulators in this conversation – Decatur government. The school board also is a contributor to the problem. So, is all similarly owned land. Look at city parks where people play on fields without dodging trees. That’s a problem because it drives down the city average.

The solution that’s needed is not to take away rights from homeowners and to beat us into compliance with harsh penalties, new fees and tight government regulations.

Again, the studies showed we aren’t even losing canopy now. And, in fact, at 57% today we are already a high-performing city. This is about increasing modestly something we do really well and, essentially – solving a problem we don’t have.

The conversation is well intended. Still, it’s a big-government solution in search of a problem.

And, that solution was created in a vacuum that was admittedly “self-selected.”

How about start where you have a problem and find ways to shoehorn new trees onto places they now don’t exist. Staff said just 80 acres would get the city to 60%. That doesn’t need to be achieved by a series of harsh penalties on residents who already value trees and protect them without government interference.

Simply, the city needs to rethink this proposal and its impact on regular people, those of modest means, and ask itself why we need to take away rights and use brutal penalties to reach an “aspirational goal” in a space we are already excelling in.

This proposal is the classic version of public policy created by advocates stuck deep inside an echo chamber. They are “self-selecting” their audience, no doubt.

– David Bennett

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