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Decatur City Commission takes tree ordinance vote off agenda, sending it to another work session

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Decatur City Commission takes tree ordinance vote off agenda, sending it to another work session

Commissioners, pictured left to right, are: Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers, Lesa Mayer, Kelly Walsh, Mayor Patti Garrett, and George Dusenbury. Photo obtained via the city of Decatur
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Decatur, GA — The Decatur City Commission will meet on Monday, Dec. 6, at 5:15 p.m. for a work session on the open container ordinance, at 6 p.m. for a work session on the tree ordinance and at 7:30 p.m. for a regular meeting. The meetings are held in person at Decatur City Hall, 509 N. McDonough Street, as well as Zoom.

To access the meeting, follow these instructions: 

Participants must register in advance through Zoom to receive the meeting link. To register, click here.

The meeting will also be livestreamed on the city’s website.

To view the meeting agenda, click here.

The City Commission was set to vote on the amended tree ordinance during tonight’s regular meeting, however, some last-minute changes have been made, and the ordinance will now be reviewed by the Planning Commission before its adoption. According to a memo written by Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon, the Planning Commission could discuss the ordinance at its Jan. 11, 2022, meeting.

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

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, Saxon previously said. The city has been working to strengthen the ordinance to protect more trees.

Ash Miller, a member of the natural systems committee of the Decatur Environmental Sustainability Board, said he was shocked and appalled on Friday to learn that the tree ordinance would not be voted on tonight.

“It appears that the city has only just realized that, in fact, they now believe it needs to go through Planning Commission review, which is something no one has even breathed a hint of in the years that this has been under discussion, so that’s just absurd to learn at the last minute,” miller said. “It’s very frustrating.”

He added that the city has gutted the core of the ordinance and weakened it.

“This is now based on almost completely the ability to pay money, and it makes compliance and the canopy optional for the people who can afford to pay,” Miller said. “Set aside trees for a minute and think about the equity of this policy, it’s terrible. People who can afford it can buy their way out of having to plant trees, and everyone else has to bear that burden. It’s a mistake. It’s an 11th hour sharp, wrong turn.”

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 to maintain no net loss of tree canopy.

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. Although, some residents and the city’s Environmental Sustainability Board have been advocating for the tree canopy goal to be set at a minimum of 63%.

In the memo, Saxon highlighted some changes that have been made, which included increasing the canopy goal to 63%.

But Miller said that won’t address his concern.

“There’s no way we can meet that goal when we’re lowering the bar on all of our residential sites,” Miller said.

The ordinance also sets canopy cover requirements and conservation goals for various properties. A minimum 60% canopy cover would be required for single-family residential properties, and 75% of the existing fair- or better-rated trees would have to be conserved.

“The proposed ordinance has been changed to reflect comments by the City Commission at the work session, including an increase in the city-wide tree canopy goal from 60% to 63% and a provision treating single—family residential properties consistently regardless of existing canopy coverage,” Saxon wrote in the memo.

Under the updated draft, options for replacement would include a combination of on-site planting, installation of green infrastructure, contribution to the tree bank, and/or rooftop solar installation.

The updates also strike the requirement that if there is less than 60% canopy on a single-family property when applying for a permit, the property owner would have to submit a tree conservation plan or a tree removal permit using the standards for alternative compliance.

Miller said the city messed up and is trying to make the ordinance stronger if it’s challenged in court. He added that it’s troubling that this was not discussed at the last City Commission meeting.

“They’ve taken the biggest loophole in the ordinance and made it the blanket policy for the entire city on residential sites,” Miller said. “Everyone’s been pushing them to close this loophole, and they’ve now made it the entirety of their policy, this pay-to-play thing.”

— In other business, during the regular meeting, the City Commission will discuss the face mask ordinance, declare the election results, consider a project budget for a solar and batter system at the public works building, and discuss the downtown tree maintenance program.

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