A recent Atlanta skyline photo from Trees Atlanta.

The Atlanta City Council on Dec. 5 approved several tweaks to the city’s tree protection ordinance, including updated rules for trees planted around new residential and commercial developments and in parking lots.

The changes are the start of an incremental plan to revise the tree protection ordinance that has essentially stayed the same since 2001. Besides a few updates on tree plantings and , the amendments focus on streamlining permitting processes, enforcement practices, clarifying language and definitions in the ordinance and ensuring diversity of trees.

The new amendments also include trees on commercial properties and mixed use and multifamily properties have to be replaced for the lifetime of the development, not just for the two years required by the existing ordinance. The revised ordinance also says invasive vines must be removed from trees for them to be counted toward minimum tree cover requirements.

The second phase of revisions is set to start early next year. These revisions are expected to include new regulations for tree plantings at affordable housing developments, for example, and possibly increasing fines for illegally cutting down trees.

Kathryn Kolb, a naturalist who consults with communities on tree ordinances, told the council during public comment that the amendments approved Monday “are mostly positive, but they only make extraordinarily small, positive changes.”

“There’s no tree protection, no change in the recompense fee — none of that’s included,” Kolb said. “We ask you to work with us quickly and early in the new year and to vote forward additional amendments that truly serve the public good and protect more of our best trees even while we build a better city.”

The council attempted an overhaul of the tree ordinance in 2014 and 2018. But plans were eventually scrapped after complaints about not enough public input into the process as well as developers criticizing the proposals as too restrictive.

An amendment in 2007 allowed Atlanta homeowners to cut down one tree every five years.

Councilmember Michael Julian Bond talks about changes made to Atlanta’s tree protection ordinance.

Atlanta’s new City Planning Commissioner Jahnee Prince told members of the community development committee at its Nov. 29 meeting that a comprehensive update to the tree protection ordinance is necessary because the city’s urban tree canopy is shrinking.

In 2008, Atlanta’s tree canopy coverage was 47.9%, the largest coverage for a major metropolitan city, according to Georgia Tech researchers. In 2014, the city’s canopy shrank to 47.1 percent. In 2018, the canopy was measured at 46.5 percent.

Price said at the Nov. 29 meeting the first round of revisions are considered “less controversial” and could be agreed to by stakeholders quickly.

“But what’s on the horizon for phase two, though, are new standards for tree preservation,” Prince said.

“We’re going to revisit recompense,” she said. “We’re going to talk more about the density of trees and the differences between public and private trees. The rules are different for trees on public land or private land and we’ve got to straighten that out.”

Adam Brock, a homebuilder and land developer, also spoke to community development committee and said there was no reason to change the city’s tree ordinance. He said he plants between 15,000 to 18,000 trees a year in Georgia.

“We’re working today to solve a problem that I contend does not exist,” Brock said. “Trees grow back sometimes healthier, stronger and longer lasting than if we had not removed them to begin with.”

Increasing tree regulations, lengthening permitting processes, increasing tree recompense fees, and banning the removal of certain trees would increase the cost to develop housing and diminish landowners values in Atlanta “for years to come,” Brock said.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.