The city of Brookhaven is rewriting its tree ordinance to better preserve the tree canopy — something that Brookhaven Heights resident Jon Margolis said he’s noticed has been declining in his neighborhood.

The rewrite aims to take out ambiguities in the current ordinance and set clear expectations that builders should try to preserve trees, Councilmember John Park said. The rewrite comes after a tree canopy study shows the city’s seeing a net loss in tree coverage.

A tree on the edge of a property at 2328 Colonial Drive facing Pine Grove has a large, orange X spray painted on it. (Erin Schilling)

Park said the ordinance rewrite is a complicated balance between environmental preservation and not infringing on the rights of the property owners.

City spokesperson Burke Brennan said the city has requested proposals from consultants for the ordinance. The city is set to have a proposal awarded by October and the rewrite should start in November, along with a public input process. Park said the rewrite would have happened earlier this year but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents and city officials say there’s a trend of developers taking down too many trees.

Margolis is worried about two large trees at the intersection of Pine Grove and Colonial Drive that have orange X’s spray painted on them. The trees are on the edge of a residential property at 2328 Colonial Drive, which is owned by Breezy Dayz Properties, LLC, according to the city property map.

“I understand certain trees have to come down, but it’s just been horrible in metro Atlanta,” Margolis said.

Allison Bible of AB Works Construction Consulting put in a variance request for the house’s setbacks with the Brookhaven Board of Appeals in a Jan. 15 meeting for the 2328 Colonial Drive property on behalf of the homeowner Lisa Levison, she said. The variance was unanimously approved.

Bible told the board two trees would be removed for the proposed development, according to the meeting minutes.

A building permit has not been submitted yet for construction as of the end of August, Bible said, and the tree removal will be included in that permit request.

“If we didn’t have to take any trees down, we certainly wouldn’t be,” Bible said. “In the city of Brookhaven, there’s a very clear tree ordinance. If you follow it, you’re following the rules, and we’re doing exactly what the tree ordinance states.”

Bible said they plan to replant some trees as well to make up for the loss of trees and noted that tree removal is an expensive process and the life span of specific tree species have to be considered when judging whether a tree should come down or not.

Margolis said he’s seen too many situations in which developers cut down trees without a good reason.

Park said a clearer tree ordinance would show builders that the city expects tree preservation to be a priority.

A new tree ordinance would hopefully give more power to the city arborist and speed up some processes regarding trees, Park said. For example, if a tree prohibits a builder from following the city’s zoning ordinances, such as if the tree caused a setback variance, it’s easier for the builder to cut down the tree than go through a months-long rezoning process.

Park said the new ordinance may also value trees differently based on age and type.

The current tree ordinance allows homeowners on single-family residential property to remove three trees per year that are 6 inches or larger in diameter at breast height, or DBH, with a permit, as long as the property maintains a density of 60 DBH inches of trees per acre. Trees less than 6 DBH inches can be removed without a permit as long as the same density of 60 DBH inches is upheld.

Residents can also remove trees that are deemed hazardous by a certified arborist, according to the ordinance, and public utility companies can remove trees for utility easements.

Specimen trees, which are trees valued higher by the city because of size, location, type or historic value, have more protections and need to have the approval of the city arborist if a resident or developer wants to remove it, according to the ordinance. A fee is also required to take down a specimen tree.

Developers must maintain 120 inches — in diameter — of trees per acre or 45% of a site’s tree-canopy cover unless the site already had less tree coverage than that before development started, according to the ordinance.

The tree ordinance was rewritten in 2014 and updated about a year later in 2015. The 2015 changes reduced the amount of trees homeowners could take down from five to three and outlined the current density requirements for developers.

Park said those changes weren’t enough.

“In 2017, concerned citizens came to us saying the tree ordinance was not doing its job to protect the tree canopy,” Park said. “We realized a rewrite, starting from scratch, was the way to go instead of piecemealing something together.”

In June, a PlainIt Geo study presented to the council said the 2019 tree canopy coverage in the city is 44%, compared to 47% in 2009. The city commissioned the assessment in part because of the planned rewrite. It also hired a tree canopy preservation manager, who Park said will oversee much of the new ordinance.