Community Action

Horizon School Appeal Upheld

The appeal on the property at 1900 DeKalb Ave., former site of the Horizon School, was upheld by the Tree Commission on May 16, 2018 on the following two sections of the Atlanta Tree Ordinance:

  • Section 158-103(a): Each applicant for apermit to remove, destroy or injure trees shall, to the maximum extent feasible, minimize the impact on the trees on the site.

  • Section 158-103(c)(6): For trees removed in the required construction of streets and related infrastructure in new subdivisions or other planned developments, a maximum shall be set on recompense at $5,000.00 per acre, pro rated.

What Was Being Appealed

According to The City in the Forest, who shepherded this appeal, the foremost objection to this property receiving a tree cutting permit is that the site plan had not "minimized impact to trees to the maximum extent possible".

There are 275 trees on the property,  19 of which have been declared dead, dying, or hazardous (DDH) and 221 more to be "destroyed" by the construction process.  Only 33 trees are marked as "saved", mostly around the pool and in transition areas.  Other areas of concern The City in The Forest mentioned on their website are:

  • Trees in the setbacks are not being protected, which is a requirement.
  • Stands of trees are not being protected, which is a requirement for land over 1 acre.
  • The recompense is not being calculated properly. Recompense is what the owner pays the city for taking down trees, and the money goes into the city tree bank.
  • They are not replanting the proper type of trees, and they are not replanting in the correct location.
  • They should make an effort to reuse the existing street and building footprints, and this is not happening.

City Arborist Browning spoke against the appeal, saying that the appellant was "throwing the kitchen sink at this appeal" and "too many general references" to the Tree Ordinance were being made.  However, several people who spoke on behalf of the appellant were able to cite, by number, which sections of the Tree Ordinance were in violation. 

Why The Appeal Was Upheld

The Tree Commission felt that they did not hear enough evidence from the developer, Don Donnelly, owner of Atlanta-based builder Hedgewood Homes, that he had attempted to minimize tree loss on the site to the maximum extent feasible. The Commission asked several questions about what attempts Donnelly’s team had made to minimize the loss of trees — particularly the street, boundary and high value interior trees — and concluded that they “didn’t hear concrete answers to our questions.”

Also, the Tree Commission asked Plan Reviewer Michael Browning to explain why recompense for every tree lost on the property had been calculated at the lower infrastructure recompense rate rather than the standard rate when the site clearly was being prepared for more than just roads, utilities, etc. The Commission felt that only the trees impacted by infrastructure changes to the property should have received the infrastructure recompense rate.

Browning said that the infrastructure and proposed buildings were “inextricably linked” and thus, the recompense for lost trees couldn't be split between infrastructure and standard rates. When pressed by the Commission to explain how the infrastructure and buildings were linked, Browning was unable to explain it to the Tree Commission’s satisfaction.

What Does This Ruling Mean?

Update:  An orange sign posting went up on this property May 25, 2018.  This means the developer, Hedgewood Homes, has submitted a new site plan to the City Arborist for review.  The new site plan should show that Hedgewood Homes truly has, to the maximum extent feasible, minimized the impact on the trees on the site. If the new plan is approved by Browning -- which we expect it will be given that he approved the first plan -- the preliminary permit to cut trees can be appealed again.  This permit can be issued as soon as 10 calendar days from the posting of the orange sign and must be accompanied by a yellow sign posting which will be remain in effect for 5 calendar days. 

If this new site plan fails, Hedgewood Homes could just walk away from this project all together.  The property at 1900 DeKalb is presently for sale, with a current offer contingent on whether or not a building plan suitable to the buyer's needs can be approved for this site.  Donnelly expressed "marketability" as being a major factor in why his company did not do a better job at minimizing impact to the trees. 

Whose Side is the City Arborist On? 

It's no secret that profitablity matters more than tree conservation to most developers.  But is it the City Arborist's job to help developers maximize their profitability?  This question was raised by Raenell Soller, of the tree advocacy group City In The Forest, who told the Tree Commission that it wasn’t the City Arborist’s job to facilitate a real estate transaction. She and others who spoke on behalf of the appellant expressed concerned that perhaps Browning was helping the developer to reduce his costs by assessing the lower infrastruture recompense fee on all of the trees, including those that were not being destroyed for infrastucture purposes.

Future Implications of this Ruling

It used to be that Section 158-103(a) was an extremely weak section of the Tree Ordinance on which to base one's appeal. Again, 158-103(a) requires developers "to the maximum extent feasible, minimize impact on the trees on this site". Problem is, "maximum" and "minimize" are subjective terms, and in the past, neither the Arborist Plan Reviewer nor the Tree Commission seemed willing to challenge something that subjective. We would advise people that their appeal had a greater chance of being upheld if it challenged the more quantifiable aspects of the Tree Ordinance, such as whether or not trees in the setback area had been marked as destroyed, or if the recompense calculations were correct.

But even though the appeal included nine different sections of the Tree Ordinance that had been violated, Section 158-103(a) was the one that most concerned the Tree Commission. In making this section the primary focus of why they upheld the appeal, it suggests that the Tree Commission, and possibly now even the City of Atlanta, is realizing that we cannot protect our urban canopy by having an Arborist Division that does nothing more than "assess fees and fines", as one of the speakers for the appellant bluntly put it. Rather, we need an Arborist Division that works with developers upfront in the planning process to help maximize the preservation of trees.

Until now, the Arborist Division has been the last stop in the building permitting process, a place where developers pay the tree cutting recompense fees before getting their permit. Indeed, Hedgewood Homes' civil engineer and site plan developer, Chuck Abbott, owner of Abbott Concept and Designs, defended the site plan by pointing out that they had been at this permitting process for four months now and that all the other building departments had already approved their site plan.

Is the City Turning a New Leaf?

Tim Keane, Atlanta’s planning commissioner, seems to be on board with planning for tree conservation, saying in a recent Daily Beast article that "If the arborist is involved at the beginning [of a site development] and they’re saying, ‘You’ve got to design around the trees,’ then they can totally reconfigure the way they work and save the trees.”  However, builders will fight Keane on that, says Jim Brown, former president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. “I think when you start telling people how to design a house on a piece of land they own, that is really far-reaching of the government.”

But, wait -- don't all the other building departments have their own codes and standards that "tell people how to design a house on a piece of land they own?" Is having electrical or plumbing codes for new construction "really far-reaching of the government?" If not, then why are the codes in the Tree Ordinance "far-reaching"?

The City of Atlanta appears to be turning a new leaf in how they think about the urban canopy. The trees on the outside of the house are becoming just as important to the City as the electrical wiring on the inside.

It's time for developers to wake up to this new reality and "turn a new leaf", too.



Google, Leave Them Trees Alone!

Friday, 18 December 2015 19:59

You may recently have heard that Google has begun laying fiber-optic cable throughout Metro Atlanta, beginning with the Midtown area first. These new fiber optic lines promise speeds up to 1,000 megabits per second, which is 100 times faster than basic broadband, but installing these new lines requires trees to be trimmed and new poles to be erected to carry the lines.

As local residents began to observe the new pole installation, presumably by Google contractors, they quickly became concerned that tree roots were being compromised by the digging. Section 158-34 of the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance states that 'fences surrounding root save area must be erected before the commencement of any land disturbance.'"

Atlanta is not the first city to voice concern over Google damaging street trees when stringing fiber optic lines. Two years ago, residents and business owners in Kansas City's historic Volker neighborhood were outraged when Google Fiber severely cut back some trees on 39th Street, some to the point of total destruction.

Volker Neighbors Angry About Google Fiber Tree Cutting

This past Wednesday morning, Virginia-Highland resident Stephanie Coffin sent an email to Google representative Fabiola Charles Stokes, complaining about a red maple on Ponce de Leon Avenue that was heavily damaged by post digging.

“The pole hole was dug right next to a large red maple planted in the ROW,” Coffin wrote. “What is left is roots from the maple sticking up all over the area, the soil is disturbed and the ground has changed its elevation.  All these conditions have damaged this public tree. I have seen other pole erections in the neighborhood and the areas around public trees have been left in similar conditions.”

Stokes’ responded by saying that the digging “was not done by our crews or on our behalf.”  However, Coffin noted that there may be some confusion as to which company is trimming trees or digging post holes given that Georgia Power, AT&T -- and now Google -- are all running lines and doing tree pruning for their individual lines.  “The Department of Parks has no pruning cycles established giving the impression to all that our trees are fair game to whoever wants to whack them,” Coffin replied. Furthermore, she continued, “Contractors and subcontractors are being used with different truck logos and crews, [so] it is very difficult for the public to find out who is digging and pruning public trees.”

After more complaints by other residents, Google is starting to listen. NPU-F (which covers Midtown and Virginia-Highland) Chair This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it received the following email Wednesday afternoon from This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , a former Georgia Power employee who is now working as a contract arborist with Georgia Power:

Greetings Debbi Skopczynski,

As you are aware, the Google Fiber installation project has begun in Atlanta. The in town communities appear to have a lot of excitement about this and welcome the project.

One aspect of the project that residents in NPU F will discover is the need for tree trimming where equipment will be added to poles and where fiber installation is required. My reason for contacting you is to introduce myself and let you know how I am involved with this project. I am a retired Georgia Power Utility Forestry Specialist who has worked closely with the in town communities in the past on tree trimming issues. I have been brought on board as a Contract Arborist to help coordinate the pruning efforts for this Google project. Google makes every effort to minimize customer dissatisfaction on projects such as this. I believe that our team of 3 Utility Arborists, Justin Johnson, Clay Szoke and myself, can address tree concerns and questions promptly and professionally before any issue arises.

Only residents who have trees in the public right-of-way at the installation sites will be notified. These residents will be contacted prior to any tree work which gives them an opportunity to reach out to our team with any questions. Tree work inside NPU F has begun and it will continue in 2 parts. The first part is work at select poles along the street to prepare them for additional equipment and the second part will be the actual fiber installation. There could be some time delay between these 2 events. I say this to let you know that the residents may see tree work at the same location on 2 separate occasions. This can present some confusion and questions.

The City of Atlanta Public Right-of-Way Arborists are aware of the work locations and are updated each week. They have been informed of the type of tree trimming work that is necessary which in most cases is minimal. With this knowledge they will be able to stay informed when they receive calls from concerned citizens. They have seen some of the tree work in NPU F and have given their approval.

Please let me know if you have any questions about the Google project. If the questions are tree related, our team can address them; if they are engineering/scheduling questions, they will be directed to Google. I hope that this information is helpful.

Please do not hesitate to contact us.

Trudy Brandau
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Justin Johnson
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Clay Szoke
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Google plans to install fiber throughout metro Atlanta which means thousands of our street trees may be affected. If you have any questions about the tree work that is being conducted in your neighborhood related to the installation of Google fiber, please contact one of the three contacts listed above. It is important that Atlanta residents remain vigilant and watch out for the trees in their neighborhood so that they are protected during this Google fiber installation.



Do Bodies Lie Below Thrive Homes' Oak Park Development?

logs in truckOctober 21, 2015 -- Before DeKalb County's Champion White Oak tree was cut down and hauled off last week to clear a 2.5 acre lot for a new 11-home subdivision, a long-time Kirkwood resident approached members of Atlanta Protects Trees (APT) with some startling news.  The resident recalled playing as a child in a cemetery located where the trees were being cut: 145 Norwood Ave in the Kirkwood neighborhood of East Atlanta. APT quickly enlisted the services of an African-American historian who confirmed that there once had been a church on the site with a road to a cemetery under the tree canopy. There was also a creek on a 1928 map that the builder's site plan didn't show. The historian recommended an underground penetrating sonar survey be conducted.

The resident's description of the site precisely matched the historian's account, so APT promptly notified the City of Atlanta that the tree cutters, and eventually the builder, Thrive Homes, potentially would be disturbing an old burial ground. APT requested a stop work order until further investigation of a possible cemetery on that site could be conducted. The City did not issue a stop work order and the tree cutting proceeded.  The Champion Tree, the largest documented white oak in DeKalb County, took two days to be cut down -- and a good 30-40 minutes of digging to loosen the soil around the trunk -- but the last remnants of its trunk were pushed over Thursday afternoon.

The City of Atlanta has very specific ordinances for burial grounds disturbances, including "identifying and notifying the descendants of those buried or believed to be buried in such cemetery" and specifying exactly how any human remains or burial objects on the site will be relocated.  The Tree Next door is unsure why the City did not stop work on the site after APT presented them with signed witness testimony and historical documents showing that the area possibly contained human graves.

"No response from the City of Atlanta, staff historian, or DeKalb County has been received on what is believed to be a mid to late 1800's African American historical site," reported APT on their Facebook Page last Thursday.  "Thrive [Homes] has worked fast and furious to destroy this site without giving APT, historians on site or neighbors to establish this site as historic with cemeteries and bodies beneath the trees and equipment. APT would like know why the City of Atlanta will not stop work until these discoveries can be investigated."

APT is still investigating the potential cemetery which they believe "possibly houses family, civil war soldier and/or African American remains." APT also states that, "it's our understanding that the developer is aware of this potential obstacle for their project".  APT is asking the nearby neighbors to keep a close watch on the site, and record any activity that might be useful in determining if a burial site is being disturbed.  

Please follow Atlanta Protects Trees' Facebook Page to keep updated with their investigation and to view videos of the tree cutting.  The DeKalb Country Champion White Oak may be down, but the question now is: what lies beneath?



Tree Cutters are Cutting White Oaks Now


Old Cemetery Confirmed On Property

After postponing the tree cutting, first due to ordianance violations and then yesterday due to wet conditions, the tree cutters arrived this morning and are getting ready to take down all the trees, including DeKalb County's Champion Oak. Channel 2 News is onsite. Please come to the site immediately. We need all the support we can get.

Yesterday afternoon Atlanta Protects Trees heard from several neighbors who live behind the property at 145 Norwood Ave., home of the DeKalb Champion Tree, that there may be a cemetery on that property. An historian is presently on site to evaluate and we just received confirmation that there was old church with a road to the cemetery.  There is also a creek on the 1928 map they don't show on the current site map.

The work crew onsite started erecting a chain link privacy fencing around the entire property this morning to prevent anyone from being able to enter or view the property. We feel that the developer, Reid Knox of Bows Real Estate and builder, Chris Rudd of Thrive Homes, are intentionally trying to block access to citizens accessing pertinent information about the property which would interfere with their development on that site and thus, their planned destruction of DeKalb's Champion White Oak.

We need to get the press and police on site now.  


Tree Advocates to Meet At Site Tuesday, Oct. 13

Update, 11:50pm -- WSB-TV (Channel 2 Action News) ran a story on the tree cutting at 145 Norwood Ave. today. Please come join us tomorrow, Tuesday, October 13th. We'll be getting there around 8-8:30am and will be there all day!


apd stop work orderUpdate, 5:30pm -- When tree cutting began on this site, the developer had no fencing to protect the critical root zones of the few trees that were to remain after the cutting. A stop work order was placed on the property by the Atlanta Police Department and tree fencing went up today.  It is expected that the cutting of the largest trees, including the Champion White Oak, will resume tomorrow.

Improper or no tree fencing around "saved" trees is an all too often practice throughout Atlanta and is why so many trees die after a new build is completed.

They may have helicopters tomorrow when the trees will be cut. Atlanta Protects Trees and other tree supporters will be there tomorrow on site. Please come show your support for our trees!

Update, 2:30pm -- WSBTV went live on Champion White Oak destruction at 12:30pm.  Come join us today at 4pm at 145 Norwood Ave., Atlanta  for more coverage by Channel 2. We need people and faces to show support for better protection of Atlanta's existing trees. 

October 12, 2015 -- A crew of workers has arrived at 145 Norwood Ave. to begin cutting trees, including the DeKalb Champion White Oak pictured here. In addition to this 58" DBH Champion White Oak, five more specimen White Oaks will fall under the ax so that the property can be developed with with 10-11 homes and one retention pond.

champion white oak 145 norwood

The trees being cut range from 150-300 years on a 2+ acre lot.  Even though options were possible to save many of the trees or to use conservation zoning techniques, no attempt was made to develop low-impact lots or to preserve any of the trees.  Calls to the developer, Reid Knox, to explore other options, including an offer to purchase the land, were not returned.  

Representatives from Atlanta Protects Trees will be filming this tree cutting so that Atlantans will know that the City of Atlanta Tree Ordinance does not protect our rarest and finest trees.

Why are these oak trees special?

This is healthy stand of 100 year old and more white oaks, which is the top tree in our region. Unlike water oaks, which grow fast and only live for about 150 years or so, white oaks grow slowly and can live from up to 600 or even 800 years. The largest tree in this stand is the DeKalb County Champion White Oak, the 2nd oldest and largest in the metro Atlanta area.

If you look closely at the trees, you can see that they have extremely large, arching, beautiful canopies, with almost no broken or missing branches—just think about all the thunderstorms and hurricanes that have passed through the Atlanta area in the last 150 years, and think about how these trees have weathered every single one of these storms in perfect health.

Why is this property special?

The property was never intended to be developed, but was platted as a park as an amenity to the Kirkwood neighborhood. In 1907 it was called "Oak Park" – probably because the trees, back then, were considered special, with largest trees perhaps being more than 100 years old even at that time.

The property is also on an historic hill-top, near not far from Battle of Atlanta sites, and retains old historic soils and a meadow environment, which is now very rare in our urban area. Almost all our nature parks are in stream corridors, because those were the areas that were not developed, and these have a different ecology.  This stand of trees exists in irreplaceable "old growth" soil with a variety of native plants, and is used as a preserve by wildlife including neo-tropical migrant songbirds, Red-Shouldered hawks, and Barred owls.  The variety of specimen trees on the site includes White Oak, Hickory, Tulip Poplar and Red Oak, all in extremely good health.

Also, large buteo hawks, barred owls and neo-tropical migrant songbirds are using this site for nesting, shelter and food. White Oaks harbor over 500 species of small insects that are a critical part of the food chain for birds.

But after these trees are all cut down, all of that will be gone, and Atlanta will be left with another densely packed new home development with impervious surfaces contributing to our rising heat index.




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