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Decatur residents continue to urge the City Commission to adopt a stronger tree ordinance

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Decatur residents continue to urge the City Commission to adopt a stronger tree ordinance

Trees along S. McDonough Street. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Decatur, GA — As the amended tree ordinance make its way to the Decatur City Commission, several residents continued to advocate for a stronger tree ordinance and a higher tree canopy goal at the City Commission meeting on Nov. 1.

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.

“I really hope that we will be ambitious in these goals and see the tree canopy as one piece of a green infrastructure that we all need to build in order to prevent the adverse effects on our health and the climate,” resident Barbara Drescher said.

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.

Some major changes include requiring property owners to submit a tree removal permit to take down untreatably diseased, dead or hazardous trees; setting the tree canopy goal at 60%; and adjusting the canopy credit to dependent on tree size; among other changes.

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

Residents who spoke during the public comment period on Nov. 1 thanked the city staff and the commissioners for their work on the tree ordinance amendments, but proposed some changes.

Their main focus seemed to be on urging the City Commission to increase the tree canopy goal. 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.

Ash Miller, who is a member of the Environmental Sustainability Board’s Natural Systems Committee, said the city about 10 years ago when the city set its tree canopy goal, the goal was to add about 150 acres of canopy.

That’s the goal that we’ve been working toward for 10 years, roughly. So let’s evaluate our progress,” Miller said. “Our latest canopy study showed that we lost 11 acres of trees. We did not gain, unfortunately. We did, however, add over 100 acres of impervious surface, so that’s quite sobering.”

Based on an open records request, the city lost another 10 acres of canopy in 2020, Miller said.

“We’re behind our own goals. [The city is] taking such important steps, and I’m so grateful to see that this draft is already as strong as it is,” Miller said. “We really need to consider this in light of how Decatur has been doing. This is our opportunity. This is where we can strengthen this ordinance and make a profound difference on the quality of life in the future for our residents.”

Former DeKalb County commissioner Kathie Gannon suggested a few changes to the ordinance to help the city “live up to the moniker of being a tree city,” she said.

“First and foremost is increasing the tree canopy at least to 63%, I think is the recommendation,” Gannon said. “I would say 70% would be a great aspirational goal for such a great aspirational city, but at least 63% would be very helpful.”

The proposed ordinance also sets canopy goals for residential and commercial properties.

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.

“In addition, as a downtown resident, we have a growing neighborhood, and we do suffer the impact of loss of tree canopy, because we have the lowest canopy goal in the city,” Gannon said. “It’s been at 45% but a minimum of 55% would certainly help the whole downtown area, especially in areas that have not been developed yet and will be under that pressure.”

Gannon also encouraged the City Commission to think about unintended consequences for granting special exceptions to the canopy requirements for affordable housing.

“It’s a concept we should certainly keep and look at, but in addition to making it easier for developers to build, we have to remember that there’s going to be people living in that housing,” Gannon said. “You don’t want it to stand out and be different. That would stand out and be different. I’ve had the privilege of representing a large number of low-income communities and believe me, they fight for their trees. They are every bit as concerned about conservation of trees as any other neighborhood.”

Amit Saidane asked the commissioners to support a stronger tree ordinance and make sure it protects the city’s priority trees and grows the tree canopy.

“How committed are you to growing our city’s tree canopy? We need at least a 63% canopy goal simply to maintain the current baseline and far more than 63%, I’ve heard numbers like 70%, to actually increase our city’s tree canopy,” Saidane said. “This is critical for dealing with the expected increases in population and temperature in the city of Decatur.”

He added that the city should to provide additional protection for its best and oldest trees and reduce the amount developers can pay into the tree bank.

“These are the trees we’ll be counting on the most for stormwater mitigation, shade from extreme heat, shelter for wildlife, among other benefits. The proposed draft does not go far enough to differentiate an 80-year-old Magnolia from a small grouping of smaller, younger trees. These are not the same. How far will you go to enforce effective penalties and reduce allowable tree bank payments,” Saidane said. “Decatur needs these trees more than these payments. I urge you to do more for the residents of Decatur by taking concrete actions to protect Decatur streets and to protect our community.”

Erin Murphy agreed and suggested reducing the “amount developers pay into the tree bank from 50% to 25%, so canopy goals for the city are not undermined by payments in lieu of actual trees,” she said.

She added the city should also limit the buildable area to 110% instead of 125%, which is proposed in the draft ordinance.

Lynne Rosner would like to see the city act quickly to implement the tree information portal proposed in the ordinance. The city arborist would prepare and publish quarterly reports summarizing tree removals, tree replacements, additional tree plantings, and other information needed to measure the effectiveness of the ordinance, according to the city’s recommendations.

“I’m hoping that this can happen right away, that we don’t have to wait another two or three years to get feedback on what’s happening with our tree removal,” Rosner said. “I’m hoping that a second arborist will be hired and there will be more help for [Kay Evanovich] so that this information can come out. I also would love to see it broken down by residential and commercial, so that we can see what’s happening in the residential areas as far as tree removal goes, and how it changes the canopy percentage.”

The Rev. Jenny Phillips, who works for Global Ministries, urged the City Commission to put the community’s values into policy that will carry forward its covenant with trees, to increase the canopy goal and to strengthen the tree ordinance.

“I’m here because I don’t want that ordinance and I don’t want our trees to get whittled away,” she said. “I want the tree ordinance to be stronger than it is today. People here love the trees. People here need the trees, but to ensure a healthy canopy for future generations, we need your leadership.”

If the city loses a tree here and there, slowly but surely the city’s identity will erode, Phillips said.

“The tree canopy here is simply majestic. It provides incredible beauty, [and] much needed shade,” she said. “The trees provide stormwater control, wildlife habitat and just a general sense of calm and peace and wellness. This kind of canopy doesn’t just happen by accident. It happens through multi-generational commitment. It happens neighbor by neighbor, tree by tree.”

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