By John Schaffner

Sandy Springs’ public works director came to Sandy Springs City Council asking for a policy on how to deal with trees that are causing a problem in the city’s right-of-way, but was told instead to confer with the city’s arborist and “use his good judgment” in deciding each individual case.

At the root of Public Works Director Tom Black’s request was a case involving a “heritage” oak tree, the roots of which extend out into the street in a subdivision. The roots have caused the pavement to bulge and created a rough ride for motorists.

Black’s first inclination was to tear up the asphalt over the tree roots in the street, cut the roots and patch the street pavement. But the neighbors objected to disturbing the tree roots, Black told the council Oct. 5. They said it would end up killing the tree.

Black said he relented and agreed with the neighbors not to disturb the tree’s roots, for fear it would kill a beautiful tree. And he said this was on a street where there was very little traffic that would be affected by the bulge in the pavement.

The public works director said, however, that if this problem existed on a heavily traveled thoroughfare, or on a curve on a busy street — where it might lead to an accident — he probably would have said to cut off the tree roots that were causing the pavement to bulge.

He said he was getting mixed signals from council members about this type of situation and wanted some direction — in the form of a policy statement — as to how he and his department should proceed with these cases.

“Are we under the tree ordinance, or are we not under the tree ordinance?” Black asked. “I am getting different feelings from different folks on this council. I am seeking some guidance on how to proceed,” he added.

“If we have a tree that is so close and its roots are destroying the road and picking it up, which causes a driving-safety issue, I don’t understand this discussion,” said Councilwoman Diane Fries. “Cut the root.”

Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny countered, “A heritage oak is a much larger tree than a landmark category. It is on a neighborhood street where maybe 10 people go by daily.”

Fries said Black was right to ask for guidance. “I think he is very warranted in asking for us to set the standard on when we take down a major community resource,” she said.

City Manager John McDonough added that this problem also creeps up with the city’s sidewalk program. He said often the sidewalks are routed around trees, but sometimes tree roots still come into play.

Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins said, “I would prefer that you go toward the curb to try and avoid it, but if you can’t avoid it, you can’t avoid it.”

Mayor Eva Galambos asked the city arborist for his input into the situation and he recommended a way for workers to avoid harming trees when staging materials for construction projects, but also agreed each situation needed to be judged on its own.

Galambos told Black, “I have a lot of faith in your common sense. In this situation you leaned over in the direction of saving the tree. If this had been a street with a lot of traffic, your common sense would have said you can’t have pavement that is breaking up.

“If you want a hard and fast policy, that would limit your ability to use your common sense,” Galambos said.