Brookhaven has approved its first new tree ordinance since 2015, but not without pushback from the development community. 

During a June 29 meeting, the Brookhaven City Council approved the new ordinance, which sets city rules for the preservation of trees. The city made the decision to rewrite its ordinance in 2020 after tree-cutting angered residents.

The ordinance attempts to strike a balance between protecting the city’s tree canopy and allowing new development to come into the city. However, some residents had concerns that the ordinance restricted development too much. 

During public comment, Brookhaven resident Drew Clough said he had concerns that language in the tree ordinance made it too difficult for developers to get variances to remove specimen trees.

“A variance to remove a specimen tree can only ever be granted if the applicant can prove that the property has no economic value absent the variance, which is impossible,” he said of the new ordinance. “You’ve made it literally impossible to get a variance.”

Clough also expressed concern over the section of the code that said a variance would not be necessary to remove a specimen tree if that tree’s critical root zone – or the area where the majority of the tree’s roots are – takes up 50% of the buildable area of the lot. He said he thought 25% would be a better size requirement. 

Community Development Director Patrice Ruffin responded to both of Clough’s concerns. In regards to the language that suggested the applicant would have to prove a property had no economic value without a variance, she said that economic value is one of a few considerations that could merit a variance, and the code does not necessitate that all of those considerations are met. 

“Just that standard alone by itself would not be something that would decide the case on its own,” Ruffin said. “All of the considerations would be taken into account.” 

In regards to the 50% rule, Ruffin said the language in that section of the variance gives the city enough flexibility to work with an applicant.

“Fifty percent might be too high in some situations, but I think we have enough flexibility to see how it works in the coming months,” she said. 

Brookhaven resident Ken Warlick also spoke during public comment, and echoed many of Clough’s concerns. He said he believed the ordinance was too strict and would devalue property in the city. 

“The development community is not willing to accept this ordinance, and the way that this wording is, because it’s detrimental to the city of Brookhaven and the citizens who want to build a home in Brookhaven,” Warlick said. 

City Attorney Chris Balch called the assertion that the new tree ordinance would hinder development in Brookhaven “utter nonsense.” 

“Every time this council has gone to any lengths to redefine the zoning ordinance, or to redefine the building code, or to address the tree ordinance … you’ve been accused of basically burning down development in Brookhaven,” Balch said. 

Councilmember John Park led most of the conversation surrounding the tree ordinance during the meeting. Park said he felt strongly that the tree ordinance should not infringe on property owners’ rights, but he hoped the ordinance would encourage builders and developers to put more thought into how they can conserve trees and “what makes Brookhaven beautiful.” 

“The only appropriate place for something this restrictive – and I do recognize that it is restrictive – is at the hyper-local level,” Park said. “Where the leadership is constantly watching it and constantly assessing the situation.” 

Writer and Journalist Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.