How to Save a Tree
The information provided below is based on the City of Atlanta’s tree protection ordinance, but similar procedures and advise can apply to most metro Atlanta cities. The information below is a summary of key points, and should not be regarded as full and complete information. Please review the Tree Protection Ordinance for your city or jurisdiction.
How do I know if someone has a permit to remove a tree?
Search for the permit on the City permit website called Accela – all permit applications filed in the City of Atlanta are recorded in this public database.
- This is the home page for Accela. (https://aca-prod.accela.com/ATLANTA_GA)
- It is not necessary to create or have a Log In account to look up records.
- To look up building permits, select “Search Permits/Complaints” under “Building”.
What are the rules regarding when trees can be removed?
In the City of Atlanta, all trees* (larger than 6″ DBH or 12″ for pines) must have a permit for removal. Removing a tree without a permit is illegal and must be stopped immediately. Violators are subject to fines, as well as payment of normal fees for removing trees. There are requirements to replant or pay fees when healthy trees are removed.
The City of Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance is available on the city website.
The ordinances for cities and counties can typically be found on the municipal website (search “tree protection” or “tree ordinance”). Otherwise, this useful website, Municode, is a nationwide database of city codes and ordinances for your local jurisdiction.
What do I do if I see trees being removed?
If you believe that the tree removal is illegal and not allowed by the Tree Protection Ordinance, you can report the illegal activity and/or submit a complaint and appeal the removal.
In the City of Atlanta, a permit is required prior to removing a tree regardless of the cause of removal. Determine if the tree is properly permitted for removal:
- Is there a sign posted in the yard?
- Has a tree permit been approved?
- If neither is “yes”, then the tree removal is illegal.
Is the tree removal happening now?
- Is there a posted sign for Tree Removal? If not, ask to see the approved tree permit. Good tree companies will be able to show you the permit upon request. If there is evidence that the removal is illegal, inform the tree company that you will report the illegal removal.
- Use Accela (the online city database of permit applications) to look up whether a tree permit has been filed and approved.
- Contact the Arborist Division to report your complaint.
- Call 911 if tree destruction is imminent. Illegal tree removals can happen on weekends and/or after city office hours. The police are authorized to stop illegal tree removal (be helpful and indicate that you believe the city Tree Protection Ordinance is being violated).
- Take photographs. Meanwhile, please take photos of the tree company truck, including company name and/or phone number and other identifying information. Photos of the tree being removed, stumps, or other evidence of removal on site are important evidence should fines for illegal removal be applied. If you know the size (measurement) or species of the tree removed, include this information on your complaint.
Do you suspect that trees my be removed sometime soon?
Although it can be distressing or confusing to see trees being removed, there are circumstances when trees area allowed to be removed.
- Tree may be dead, damaged, or diseased and present a safety hazard or risk to property or people.
- Tree is a nuisance, either to public safety or the ecologically destructive, including tree species identified as invasive and damaging to the local ecosystem.
- Tree may have been planted in an inappropriate location and are creating a hazard.
- Specific tree(s) is/are identified to be removed as part of a building construction permit and complies with the regulations of the Tree Protection Ordinance.
Although you cannot legally object to the removal of trees that follow the requirements of the tree protection ordinance, you may want to consider:
- Communicating with the property owner to discuss alternatives to tree removal. Small adjustments to building or landscaping plans may allow a tree to be saved.
- Building plans that require exceptions, or “variances” to code or ordinances, are presented at neighborhood meetings prior to review by NPUs and city approval processes. Attend your local community meetings to have a voice on upcoming decisions regarding plans to remove trees. Community input can influence builders to modify plans.
- Understand your rights to “appeal” the “conditional approval for tree removal” as part of the tree permit process. An “appeal” to reject the permit is allowed to be submitted for 5 days after the Arborist Division conditionally approves a permit. The builder may be required to present their case in a public hearing in order to receive final approval.
- If you believe that builders/owners are not following the requirements of the tree permit, you can report the violation to the city Arborist Division.
What are those big colored signs marked “Tree Removal” mean?
Part of the permit approval process requires property owners to post signs indicating that a tree permit has been submitted. The signs usually are:
- Orange Sign (Permit Applied) – Applicant must post this sign visible from the street for 10 days.
- Yellow Sign (Preliminary Arborist Approval) – Applicant must post this sign for 5 days after receiving notice of preliminary arborist approval. During this period, neighbors may file an appeal if there is cause to contest the removal. The reason must be a violation of the Tree Protection Ordinance, with specific section cited.
- White Sign (Tree Appeal) – An appeal has been filed and a hearing will be scheduled.
If trees are considered dead, dying, or hazardous (DDH), “undesirable species”, or nuisance trees, they may be removed, but require an application to receive a permit prior to removal. If a tree is approved as DDH, no public posting (sign) is required.
Trees permitted for removal will be marked with orange paint with an X. Alternatively, public trees (those in city owned property) may be marked with an orange square or X.
There is a Orange sign posted saying that some trees are going to be removed. What do I do if I want to save the trees?
It’s important to note that the Tree Protection Ordinance determines whether trees can be legally removed, but land owners and developers can be influenced to modify tree removal and/or building plans. We strongly recommend talking to the developer/homeowner as early in the process if there is potential for unnecessary tree loss. Consider inviting developers and homeowners into a conversation so that they know there is concern regarding the potential tree removal. Giving input at the earliest stages of the development process can increase the potential to save trees. Listen to each others’ concerns and explore possible alternatives to tree removal.
In the City of Atlanta, the Tree Conservation Commission is a board of community residents and experts who review tree appeals and may be able to give further guidance on issues related to the Tree Protection Ordinance, how to appeal removal of trees, and other ways to protect trees. (Other cities might have similar community advisory boards, such as the City of Smyrna’s Tree Board. Research your city’s website for the term “tree protection ordinance” for local resources.)
Generally, if building permits (including permits to remove trees) comply fully with zoning and building codes, it is difficult to appeal the permit. If the building plans include a request for any “variance” in codes, such as rezoning, building variance, or such exception, these requests are typically reviewed by the NPU boards in Atlanta. It’s important to be engaged and attend your neighborhood or NPU meetings where requests for these types of variances are discussed and voted upon. In particular, we advise neighbors to review and deny variance requests that cause damage to trees.
Many neighborhood associations have a Zoning Committee that can provide further guidance and share their experience. All Atlanta residents are members of an NPU. There are board members of the NPU who may also have advice to help you save this tree. Of course, your City Council representative is also a good resource should you need assistance with city services.
Lastly, if you have a basis to appeal the removal of a tree, be sure to:
- Apply for an appeal within the timeframe allowed, a hearing will be scheduled.
- Specify which section of the tree protection ordinance is being violated.
- Engage your neighbors and community groups: decisions can be influenced by having more people stand with you on the appeal.
Do I need a permit to remove a tree in my yard?
Yes, you do. Whether the tree is in a yard, apartment complex, commercial business, school, street, or any property in the City of Atlanta, a permit to remove the tree is required.
Permits are required based on the size of the tree, regardless of condition or species. Trees that are 6” DBH (or 12” for pines) or greater require an application to receive a permit prior to removal. DBH refers to the standard measure for trees: diameter at breast height.
Do I need to pay a permit fee to the City to remove a tree?
It depends; not all tree permit approvals require a monetary fee to be paid to the City.
- If a healthy tree is removed, the applicant is required to plant replacement trees and/or pay a fee to “recompense” the public for the value of the tree that is destroyed.
- If a tree is dead, dying, or hazardous (DDH), no replanting or fee is required to remove the tree. (Applications for DDH trees are filed separately from applications to remove healthy trees.)
As clarification, tree cutting companies charge a service fee to remove trees. Tree company costs are NOT the same as a tree permit fee and are entirely separate. For example, the tree permit to remove a dead tree has zero fee. On the other hand, the tree company you hire may charge you for their services rendered. (Read more about hiring an ISA-certified arborist.)
A recompense requirement exists because when a healthy tree is destroyed, there is loss of a public good. Applicants can choose to meet the recompense requirements as either:
- Replacement trees – total caliper inches (tree trunk size of small trees = caliper inches) of new trees planted equal to the DBH of tree(s) removed.
- Recompense fee – money paid equal to this formula: DBH inches of the tree(s) removed x $30, plus $100 per tree.
- Some combination of these two methods can be used.
According to the Tree Protection Ordinance in Atlanta, fees for tree removal are allocated to the “Tree Trust Fund” and is reserved for tree planting, public education, purchase of forested land, and certain approved spending for replanting and preserving trees in the city.
Removing a tree (healthy or DDH) without a tree permit is illegal. If you suspect anyone of illegally removing a tree, contact the City (information below) or call 911. It is a violation of city law and is subject to police enforcement. Furthermore, violators must pay the proper permit fees, recompense, and additional fines. We recommend that you keep notes on date and time of illegal activity and take photos of any evidence, including stumps of removed trees. This information can be submitted to the Arborist Division for follow up.
A tree near the street is being removed, but I didn’t see a Tree Removal sign posted. Why?
Trees that are located on city-owned property, like city parks, fire stations, and the space between the street and sidewalks re all considered “public trees”. Care and removal of public trees are managed by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreations, Office of Parks.
Removal of public trees are required to have a permit and must be replaced “inch per inch”; this means that for every inch of DBH removed, the same number of inches of new trees must be planted. The city in not eligible to pay a monetary fee instead of replanting; the city must replant new trees somewhere within the NPU where the pubic tree was removed.
The city is not required to post a notice of tree removal, only an orange X or square may be painted on the tree to indicate they are marked for removal. Trees that are to be removed as DDH (dead, dying, and hazardous) cannot be objected or appealed because removal is required to mitigate risk to public safety. The city must follow all tree protection ordinance regulations regarding tree removal and recompense.
The trees on the street in front of construction projects must be protected from damage or removal during construction (unless separate permits have been approved). If you suspect public trees are being damaged or illegally removed by individuals or through lack of proper protection, contact the Arborist Division immediately and report the violation.
What to Do if your Neighbor, Landlord, or Developer is cutting down a tree on Private Property:
- Talk with the property owner to find out the reason for the removal. If the reason is aesthetic, share your concerns and information on the benefits of trees. If they believe the tree poses a hazard of some sort, see if you can compromise or help find a feasible solution to keep the tree.
- Rally support from neighbors. The collective voice of many neighbors may encourage the property owner to preserve the tree. This may be especially helpful in apartment complexes. A strong response from residents may help convince a building manager or owner to preserve trees.
- Private trees of a certain species or size may be protected by city law. Check your city’s municipal code for ordinances related to tree protection. If a tree is protected, inform the person planning to remove the tree, as they may not know about the law. If the ordinance is being violated, you can also call the City Arborist for assistance. There may be fines and replacement requirements for removing protected trees. Ensure enforcement of any law.
- Consult a professional. Homeowners may want to remove a tree because they believe it is poses a hazard or will cause damage to a structure. You can hire an arborist or other tree care professional to assess the situation. They can often find a way to mitigate hazards and save the tree. Keep in mind that there will likely be a fee for the consultation. Find a qualified arborist here or here.
- If the tree is cut down, consider working with your neighbor or landlord to plant a new tree. Evaluate the site to determine if another appropriate tree can be planted in the same location or nearby.
In general, remember to look into your city’s municipal code for any tree protection ordinances. If there aren’t any, lobby your City Council to enact an ordinance protecting certain types of trees in certain situations.
If your city has an ordinance or once one is enacted, help to make your fellow citizens aware of it and involved in enforcing it. You can also check if your city has an urban forestry program. If not, write or call your Mayor and Council to encourage them to create a program to promote and protect the urban tree canopy.
How can I report a code violation on a construction site that is damaging trees?
- To file a building code complaint, including lack of silt fencing and runoff issues, contact the Inspection Division at (404) 865-8400.
- To report lack of tree protection fencing or damaging trees, contact the Arborist Division at (404) 330-6874; firstname.lastname@example.org
For additional questions or concerns, you may contact the City of Atlanta Customer Service Center (311) between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday: 404.546.0311 or dial 311 in the City of Atlanta; atl311.com; or www.facebook.com/ATL311
Who can I contact for help about a tree removal or questions about the Tree Protection Ordinance?
For general information about the tree ordinance:
- Contact: Kathy Evans, City of Atlanta, Arborist Division
- Email: email@example.com
- Direct phone: 404-330-6235
- Arborist Division: 404-865-8487
She will be able to address almost all issues related to trees and the tree protection ordinance in the City of Atlanta, including tree removal appeals and tree removal permits.
To report illegal tree removal:
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (please also cc: email@example.com)
- Call: 404-330-6874
- Leave a voicemail: Specify street address and description of suspected illegal tree removal.
Concerns regarding the care and removal of public trees (trees on city property):
- Contact: Department of Parks & Recreation, Office of Parks
- Call: 404-546-6813
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other helpful information may be found on our website under: Advocacy).