Is the New Draft Tree Protection Ordinance Good?
The City of Atlanta Department of City Planning has been engaged in a years-long initiative to rewrite the Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO). The latest draft of changes to the TPO was published in late January 2021. There is a scheduled City Council committee work session on February 17, and according to the City, it will come to vote by City Council in April 2021.
Here is our initial evaluation: It is difficult to fully judge whether the new TPO will be better than the current TPO, because it is incomplete and needs further testing. For example, the recompense tree value is not included in this draft.
The January draft has changed significantly and includes ideas from public comments, such as improvements in parking lot requirements. The proposed approach to managing tree removal is intended to balance tree preservation and development goals. We are optimistic that the City’s approach can be shown to increase our Urban Tree Canopy, but without testing, we cannot be sure.
Trees Atlanta’s support of the draft TPO is reserved because the ordinance is still incomplete. There are changes that we immediately object to which are named below, and there are further modifications we would like to see that we will share with the City.
The concept of Priority Trees is introduced and is the foundation of most of the key changes. Priority Trees are defined as the most ecologically important trees and are given a higher level of protection than Non-Priority Trees. We like the concept of prioritizing our best trees for preservation. We object to changes that decrease protection of Priority Trees, such as “Allowance for Periodic Tree Removal by Homeowners” that allows one Priority Tree to be removed every three years for any reason or the removal of trees in 100-year floodplains. We recommend that when Priority Trees are at risk, the pre-construction conference is mandatory (rather than optional, as is proposed).
A table of Priority Trees by species and size and a table of Site Density and Preservation Standards is included in the draft. Site Density is a minimum number of trees that must be on the property, existing or new. The Preservation Standard requires 50-75% of Priority Trees on Single Family Residential (SFR) lots to be saved. These depend on lot size. There is no Preservation Standard for Commercial developments, but any tree that must be replanted has to survive or be replaced for the duration the development exists.
There are several incentives offered for both SFR and Commercial developments, but we would like to see incentive criteria raised to apply when standards are exceeded rather than when only the minimum requirements are met, as is proposed in the draft TPO. Incentives lower the number of trees that must be replanted and the sum of recompense. The effect of this is fewer trees replanted. Lower recompense means less funding in the Tree Trust Fund (TTF) for public replanting projects and land purchases for conserving forested land to offset removal of existing trees. We also object to the elimination of certain appeal rights.
The success of the draft TPO relies on balancing the needs to manage removal, enable replanting, and match recompense to restore the value of trees lost. If one is affected, the others must be adjusted to counter balance. We need to see analysis that these changes will lead to no net loss to our urban tree canopy and better protect our trees than the current TPO.
Does it Save More Trees?
Atlanta’s tree protection ordinance should ensure tree destruction is minimized and new trees continue to be planted. Urban Tree Canopy (UTC) cover assessments show that our City’s tree cover is declining, so the new ordinance needs to demonstrate that it can reverse the trend. The TPO lacks a measurable goal that progress can be measured by. Trees Atlanta recommends setting an UTC goal of 50%.
The requirement to replant or pay recompense for trees removed remains, but the rate of replacement is lowered (a ratio of one to .75 for Priority Trees and .50 for Non-Priority Trees). The draft TPO provides a cap on the number of Priority Trees that can be removed from Single Family Residential (SFR) lots and includes incentives that lower replanting and recompense calculation when they meet minimum Preservation Standards. How these credits add up as the total number of trees replanted and recompense is uncertain. Recompense funds are used to replant trees in public right-of-ways and other public spaces. Where street trees grow is one of few areas in the City that show canopy growth in UTC assessments. With fewer trees required to be replanted on lots, the additional impact of lower recompense payments needs to be better understood. The formulas must be tested and verified to save more trees, enable replanting, or fund recompense.
Field Test the Proposed Concepts and Standards.
Trees Atlanta strongly recommends City Arborists and private professionals who typically apply for tree permits to field test the ordinance and report outcomes. Testing will show the strengths or flaws of the protection standards and identify possible unfair recompense. Use real permitting situations for both Single Family parcels and Commercial Developments, particularly scenarios that are known to cause the greatest tree loss. Test results should compare results of proposed standards with the existing ordinance. The long-term effect of the ordinance should also be calculated with forecast models to estimate when and how the City will reach our UTC goal.
Many new requirements for reporting and tracking have been added as tools for enforcement in the ordinance. Details on the City’s capacity to support these changes are still required. Field tests should also include piloting the application and permitting process to vet feasibility and usability. We ask the Arborist Division to publish the results of field tests and modeling scenarios and show how the City reaches an established UTC goal and by when.
Enforceable Standards and Clear Processes.
The draft TPO structure is hard to understand. Clear processes lead to better compliance. Applicants should be set up for success by making it easier to understand and comply with the new codes. The draft ordinance is 60% longer than the current ordinance, which may be reduced with editing to remove duplication, improve organization and flow. Additionally, user guides and plans for public education programs and resources to better understand the TPO may be helpful.
Procedures for enforcements need more specifics. For example, the City police are noted as having power of enforcement, but no indicator of what the police could do; e.g., issue a citation (ticket), arrest, etc. Most of the new proposed standards include a provision for exceptions that can be approved by the City Arborist as “special exemptions”. This latitude may make it harder for City Arborists’ to enforce the ordinance.
Fines are largely unchanged, and penalties are mainly non-monetary, and need more specificity and evidence that they are compelling enforcement tools. We further need evidence that the Arborist Division can maintain sufficient staff to fully monitor and enforce the ordinance.
A “List of Changes in the January Draft TPO” are available: click here to view.
Next Steps You Can Take:
- Become familiar with the TPO January draft document and offer changes requested with evidence or rationale.
- Participate in the Feb. 17 work session. Call in your comments to read into record; calls received (404) 330-6042 between 4 – 7 p.m. on Feb. 16.
Ask: Does this save more trees?
- Watch the virtual work session on Feb. 17. (Dial in information on link.) Did you know you can also watch via Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube by going to City Council account?
- Field test the ordinance in your own yard or the proposed development in your neighborhood: would the new TPO achieve better outcomes? How is it better? How is it weaker?
- Contact your Councilmember to express your top priorities and/or concerns.
- Share ideas and create a productive conversation on social media with tags #moretreesplease #AtlantaTPO and tag Twitter: @atlcouncil, Facebook: Atlanta City Council, or Instagram: @atlcouncil. Share information to your neighborhood group and NPU. Trees Atlanta may be tagged at @treesatlanta on all social media.
For more information: Progress Report for Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance Rewrite