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Dear Decaturish – Decatur is still losing trees and we need a strong tree ordinance

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Dear Decaturish – Decatur is still losing trees and we need a strong tree ordinance

Oakhurst resident and environmental attorney Ash Miller on left, and Maria Moore Riggs, a homeowner who lives along Shoal Creek stand in front of a tree contractors attempted to remove on Sept. 8, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.

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Dear Decaturish,

Sadly, Decatur has been losing trees. And so we are missing out on all the good stuff we get from them: shade, cooling hot streets in the summer, reduced flooding, cleaner air, increased property values, and mental health benefits.

Thankfully, in 2012, the city set a goal to add approximately 150 acres of trees by 2037 — that’s about 150 new large canopy trees every year.

But we need an effective ordinance to make that goal a reality. Because since 2013 we have lost 58 acres of canopy and added 118 acres of impervious surface (data straight from the city’s Georgia Tech canopy study).

That means we’re at least 200 acres below our canopy goal. But probably more because another 10 acres were lost in 2020, and no doubt more in 2021. The longer our tree ordinance process drags on, the more we lose.

Happily, city staff released a strong draft tree ordinance on Friday that the Commission will consider on Tuesday. This is exactly the kind of concrete action we need to reverse our long-term losses. We need the strongest possible tree ordinance to start to make progress on our neglected canopy goals and improve the quality of life around our neighborhoods.

The ordinance would do many positive things, commonsense measures that many of us already take. You already need a tree permit to take down a tree 6-inches tree or larger. That wouldn’t change. Under the new law, if you need to take a healthy tree down, you still can — and you will need to plant a new one (it can be in a different place, sometimes even elsewhere in town). And you need to save as many other healthy trees on your property as you can. This sets reasonable, evenhanded standards for everyone to follow. Formal and informal exceptions are available, and risky trees can be taken down more easily.

The ordinance would also stop the full-lot scrapes from developers of new single-family homes. And require planning for trees early in the development process.

We all should be contributing to the benefits we’ll get from more trees. They are a collective good, and setting minimum standards means we are all doing our share, fairly. We all play our own small part in this issue, and so we can all contribute to the solution.

There’s talk of a so-called “1-tree exemption” — something suggested on Facebook late in this process. Your first tree taken down every year or two would be “free” — no permit, no suggestion of replacement. While this idea might sound reasonable at first, after I’ve looked at our city’s permitting data over seven years, the truth is this kind of exemption would apply to the large majority of trees taken down in Decatur — more than 75%. We would lose about 240 trees per year and not be asked to replace them — and remember our goal is to add 150 trees a year, above and beyond replacement levels. With this broad of a loophole, our best trees will likely fall into it. We wouldn’t have much of a tree ordinance at all, and we certainly wouldn’t add to our canopy.

So let’s keep our goals in mind. Increase our canopy. Create more of the good stuff that we all enjoy from our trees. That’s the purpose of this ordinance update. Set reasonable replanting and conservation standards. Enforce them evenhandedly. That’s what we need to do. And that’s what the city has proposed in its latest draft.

– Ash Miller

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