As a draft of a new Tree Protection Ordinance heads to a City Council presentation in late June, a rabble-rousing advocacy group is raising questions about tree-replanting funds that could shape the new code.

Tree Next Door, co-founded by Buckhead resident deLille Anthony, who heads a similar committee of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, is a well-known critic of the tree ordinance. Now the group is claiming misspending of Tree Trust Fund money on salaries and a recent landmark purchase of a southeast Atlanta forest. Some city councilmembers and Trees Atlanta, the nonprofit that helps with many of those tree-planting projects, are among those listening closely.

The tree fund consists of money collected from developers who cut down trees and is intended to pay for planting new ones, acquiring forested areas and a certain amount of related support services. Tree Next Door alleged in an April report that $3.3 million was misspent on salaries and benefits in 2009-2019 and that interest is being spent elsewhere. Those claims led City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland to request an internal audit whose results are coming in July or August, roughly when a final draft of the new tree ordinance might be up for a vote.

Meanwhile, the council in April and early May spent some of that tree fund money acquiring the 216-acre Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve. The cost was about $4.7 million for acquisition and around $3 million more for security, “stabilization” and maintenance.

Tree Next Door says hundreds of thousands of those dollars might be improperly spent under the tree fund’s restrictions. Buckhead-area Councilmembers J.P. Matzigkeit and Howard Shook were among the “no” votes on the maintenance spending as a result. Matzigkeit and others have filed legislation to cap such tree fund spending.

It remains to be seen whether Tree Next Door is accurate in its claims. The report about the tree fund spend was conducted by an attorney and an accountant — not a CPA — who work at a film and TV industry media service firm run by a friend of a Tree Next Door member.

The city did not respond to comment requests.

Shook said he’ll trust the city’s audit, but that he has long shared the skepticism about tree fund spending.

“It has always bothered me, and I’ve been saying and voting publicly for years to support my contention… that every penny of tree recompense money that goes into that trust fund needs to be spent on planting trees — every dime,” said Shook. “I think the average fee-payer has no idea that a lot of it is, in my view, siphoned off to defray departmental expenses.”

Trees Atlanta said that the points Tree Next Door raised can, at least, help to clarify the language in the new tree ordinance.

In a written statement from spokesperson Judy Yi, Trees Atlanta said the city’s forthcoming tree fund audit is a “good next step.”

“The Tree Trust Fund report is timely, and we think  the outcome of their research can help to add clarifications to the current rewrite of the Tree Protection Ordinance,” said Trees Atlanta spokesperson Judy Yi in a written statement. “Overall, the ordinance would be improved with clearer language, updated standards, and more provisions for reporting and public access to data.” The city’s forthcoming tree fund audit is a “good next step,” she wrote.

Trees Atlanta strongly supported the Lake Charlotte land acquisition, estimating it will save 60,000 trees, but agrees that definitions of maintenance spending could be clearer. “Trees Atlanta recommends that maintenance should include site stabilization and restoration for forested land that is acquired with the Tree Trust Fund,” the statement said. “The cost of maintenance should be estimated based on acreage and scope of work.”

The city released a new draft of the long-delayed tree ordinance in March, only to have its schedule derailed by the pandemic. But Westmoreland says it appears to be back on track for review and a vote by August. Meanwhile, Tree Next Door is a critic of the draft as well, saying it lacks a master plan, measurable goals and increased penalties, among other issues.

To see the draft Tree Protection Ordinance and related materials, see the “Urban Ecology Framework” page on the city’s website.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.