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Updated Decatur tree ordinance results in increased canopy conservation in first year

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Updated Decatur tree ordinance results in increased canopy conservation in first year

Trees along Commerce Drive in downtown Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Decatur, GA — During a work session on March 20, Decatur City Arborist Kay Evanovich presented the preliminary findings of the updated tree ordinance to the city commission. It’s been one year since the amended ordinance went into effect.

“Tree removal requests appear to have decreased after the implementation of the new ordinance,” Evanovich said. “Our ordinance appears to result in increased canopy conservation.”

The city commission amended the ordinance in January 2022, which went into effect on March 21, 2022. The new online permitting system launched on April 4, 2022.

The other preliminary findings of the first year are:

– The required pre-application conference has been useful in ensuring compliance.

– The tree bank fund has increased.

– There is a projected net increase in the city’s tree canopy.

– Additional and ongoing public education is needed for effective implementation.

In 2022, the permits issued in the first quarter of the year had to meet the requirements of the old tree ordinance. Throughout the rest of the year, the permits were issued under the updated tree ordinance.

In 2022, a total of 258 permits were issued — 75 permits were issued under the old ordinance in the first quarter of the year, and 183 permits were issued under the new ordinance throughout the remainder of the year.

A total of 435 trees were removed, and 376 trees were replaced in 2022.

Here are the number of permits that were issued in 2019-2021:

– 321 permits in 2021

– 256 permits in 2020

– 268 permits in 2019

The data for 2019-2021 and the first quarter of 2022 does not include tree permits and plans that were part of a building or land disturbance permit. For the remainder of 2022, the data includes tree removal permits, and tree permits and plans that were part of a land disturbance or building permit.

Last year, 14 stop work orders were issued related to trees. The total permit and review fees collected were $46,700 and the canopy loss fees to the tree bank increased by $12,655 since April 1, 2022. One citation was issued in 2022 for illegal tree removal, which resulted in a $500 fine and the planting of two trees, Evanovich said.

The city staff was charged with updating the tree ordinance in 2018. An urban canopy assessment was completed in 2019 that found the city’s canopy coverage was at 57%. Most of the city’s trees are on private property and primarily in low-density residential areas.

“We determined that developments have steadily increased over the past decade and that single family development was the biggest cause of canopy loss in our city,” Evanovich said.

Other areas of tree loss included new townhome and commercial development, the expansion of institutional property, discretionary tree removal and the loss of trees during storms. The canopy report noted the city needed to protect its remaining large tracts of urban undisturbed forests and woodland areas, and consider removing invasives.

The city had identified methods for reducing tree loss when single family properties are redeveloped, implementing conservation methods for new townhome developments, and ensuring the continued planting of trees with similar canopies to trees that have been removed.

Some key updates to the ordinance were:

– Property owners are required to submit a tree removal permit to remove untreatably diseased, dead or hazardous trees, which could previously be removed with a tree information permit. Discretionary tree removal, which was removing three protected trees in an 18-month period, is no longer allowed.

Property owners must have a certified arborist complete a tree risk assessment for moderate or higher risk trees with a target present. They must provide a report and photos of the tree condition to the city arborist.

For building and development sites, a tree permit application has to also provide a tree rating sheet with a tree plan.

– A conference with the city arborist is required before submitting a tree conservation plan or an application for a land disturbance or building permit for any proposed improvement or project that could result in tree disturbance, removal or alteration of soils in the critical root zone of any protected tree.

– Trees in fair or better condition cannot be removed.

“Under this new ordinance, healthy trees are not to be removed,” Evanovich previously said.

– Residential properties will have to maintain a minimum of 60% tree canopy and would be required to conserve 75% of existing fair or better rated trees when a land disturbance permit is required or where impervious area is increased.

– Commercial, high-density residential and institutional properties would have to reach at least 45% canopy coverage and would have to conserve 50% of existing fair or better rated trees when a land disturbance permit is required or where impervious area is increased. For commercial properties that have less than 45% canopy coverage when applying for a land disturbance permit, the property owner must apply for alternative compliance.

– Property owners must pay a canopy loss fee to the tree bank for any protected tree that is removed. This would only apply to trees that are in fair or better condition, and would not apply to dead, untreatably diseased or hazardous trees.

– The tree canopy goal was also increased to 65% for the city.

– The updated ordinance additionally requires a developer to make an agreement with a homeowner to determine who is responsible for caring for trees if new trees are planted or trees were conserved on the site.

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