City of Atlanta Rewriting Tree Ordinance (Again)

For the third time in ten years, the City of Atlanta is rewriting the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance.  Scroll to the bottom to see the latest happenings or start at the top to get a complete history.

History of Tree Ordinance Rewrite

2010 - 2014

In 2010, the Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, Wallace, Roberts, and Todd (WRT), interviewed many tree ordinance stakeholders, (i.e., city departments, tree advocates, builders, and developers) to gather input on what changes needed to be made to the tree ordinance. In 2011, WRT worked closely with The Tree Next Door to rewrite the ordinance so that it would be simpler and better organized, address inconsistencies, improve efficacy, and incorporate current arboricultural science. What resulted was a draft that was eventually shelved. In 2014, an updated rewrite was submitted to the City Council Community Development/Human Resources Committee, but this rewrite, too, never made it into law.


In 2017, City of Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane reached back to the city he left in 2015 and hired Charleston-based consulting firm Biohabitats to conduct a year-long assessment, the Urban Ecology Framework, to "define a better future condition for the natural environment, including high-level recommendations about future green spaces, green connections, and green policies."  The Biohabitats' scope of work document stated a new Tree Ordinance as a deliverable of their work product.


The Biohabitats Urban Ecology Framework study began in March 2018 and was supposed to result in a finished Tree Ordinance rewrite by the time the Biohabitats' scope of work ended in 2019. Although the Biohabitats study concluded in early 2019, it did not result in the promised new Tree Ordinance. Meantime, several “mini-updates” to the Tree Ordinance were presented to the Urban Ecology Framework Technical Advisory Committee in the spring of 2018, but these updates were not pursued.



Two public forums were held on April 23 and 24, 2019 to present the results of the Biohabitats' year-long study, which largely focused on protecting trees near waterways and considering ideas for future land restoration projects, which, not surprisingly, is Biohatbitas' area of expertise.  They briefly touched upon the new ordinance in a one-page slide but did not make any recommendations that showed how we could preserve our existing canopy, much less grow it to 50%, the City's stated goal.


Four public forums were held on consecutive evenings in each of the City's four quadrants on June 3 - 6, 2019 to review an outline of the first draft of the new tree protection ordinance.  The outline revealed that the City was indeed focusing on saving trees in stream buffers and large intact forests, but had not given any special consideration to other areas of Atlanta, particularly single-family residential neighborhoods where 77% of Atlanta's tree canopy resides.  The City talked about implementing a more "streamlined review process" which moves the planning process for trees to the beginning of the permitting process, but balances tree preservation with the City's needs for "affordability, mobility, and growth." 

Also, the City recommended eliminating all preliminary permit postings and appeal options for proposed tree removals for developers who the City determined were "doing everything right", an idea that was soundly trounced by the forum attendees. Another proposed concept vehemently rejected by the meeting attendees was the ability for homeowners to be able to remove one tree a year for non-construction purposes.

A couple of weeks after the draft outline was presented, City Council voted that effective immediately, the Department of City Planning was "to establish a pre-submittal team to conduct and coordinate consultations at the beginning of the permit review process in order to protect and preserve trees in Atlanta."  This resolution did not apply to all construction projects, just those "proposing land disturbance work, impacting setback or boundary trees, and identified for stormwater consultation."


On July 1, City Council formally passed the resolution stipulating that all projects proposing "land disturbance work, impacting setback or boundary trees, and identified for stormwater consultation" should be reviewed by a Pre-Submittal Coordinator in the Department of City Planning before submittal for land entitlement review.

On July 11, 2019, Elizabeth Johnson gave a presentation on the tree ordinance rewrite to Watershed Management in which she presented a new timeline for the tree ordinance rewrite.  That timeline pushed back the first draft review to August 2019, when a City Council work session to review the draft ordinance, originally scheduled for June, would take place on August 22.  The second draft review would come sometime in September or October.


There was no draft ready for the City Council members to review when the work session took place on Thursday, August 22 (click here for a link to the meeting video).  Instead, Planning Commissioner Tim Keane gave a slide show presentation outlining the current status of the project, which didn't show substantially any more progress from what we saw in June.  And to our consternation, City Planning was still proposing "streamlined postings, appeals, and permit process" and "allowances to remove healthy trees" for non-construction purposes, two ideas which were overwhelmingly rejected by the residents who attended the presentation of the TPO Rewrite Draft Outline in June 2019.

The Council members present all expressed significant disappointment that there was no first draft ready yet.  Councilmember Natalyn Archibong pressed Tim Keane to commit to having a first draft for City Council to review in November "before Thanksgiving", and Keane agreed.

Keane also presented some high-level numbers for Accela on the tree removals that have occurred on private property over the past six years.  The numbers look a bit low to us given the number of trees that have been removed on just the properties in which we have been engaged.  However, the City has since revised these numbers downward several times, with the latest version of the annual reports for fiscal years 2014-2019 and first-quarter fiscal year 2020 posted to their DCP Reporting website.  We have provided summary statistics for each report as well as an overall trend line analysis on The Tree Next Door website.  We have also provided substantial feedback on how the reports issued by the City could be made clearer.  Note:  It was discovered after the issuance of the March - June 2022 quarterly reports that, due to programming errors, none of the quarterly reports that had been issued up to June 2022 were correct.

Just after the August 22 work session, City Planning updated its website with a summary of the feedback they claimed to have received from the community. The Tree Next Door conducted a side-by-side comparison between what City Planning said the public response has been and what we have heard, and found significant discrepancies.  The most notable differences concern eliminating the posting and appeals process and allowing homeowners to cut one healthy "non-high value" tree a year.  Both of these proposed concepts were the most viscerally opposed by the community and yet, it appears that the City heard that the public was at least somewhat receptive.


We learned that a new consulting team, Cincinnati-based Urban Canopy Works, LLC, had been engaged by City Planning to assist Biohabitats in Atlanta's tree ordinance rewrite. The company consists of two women, Rachel Comte and Jenny Gulick, who, before forming Urban Canopy Works, created urban forest master plans and consulted on urban forestry projects with Davey Resource Group, Inc.


On November 4, City Planning issued what was supposed to be their first draft of the new tree ordinance that had been promised to City Council on August 22, but it wasn't the first draft. Instead, it was a brief slide show presentation that conceptually outlined how a new recompense formula using a tree value matrix might work.  Plus, the City was still considering how to allow homeowners to take down one healthy tree a year for non-construction purposes, an idea that had been universally opposed when it was initially proposed in June. Other concepts proposed last June, such as postings and appeals, and other items missing from the June presentation, such as parking lot tree requirements, were not even mentioned in this presentation.  Overall, this presentation included much less information than what had been presented five months earlier.

On November 5, the Technical Committee that is supposed to be consulted for input on the tree ordinance rewrite was consulted for the first time on this "first draft" presentation.  The Committee's reaction to this presentation was extremely negative and City Planning was warned that public reaction would be just as harsh.  The Committee also dismissed the "group exercise" that had been planned for the meeting.

On the afternoon of November 6, a slightly revised version of the presentation was uploaded to the City website, but the revisions were so small as to be meaningless.  The only changes were a new slide listing five additional aspects that would be considered in future tree ordinance meetings, the deletion of one slide showing a comparison to other city ordinances, some minor tweaking of the recompense formula, and the addition of a request to ask that people limit their questions and comments to two minutes. That same evening, representatives from the two consulting firms, Biohabitats and Urban Canopy Works, presented this slide show at Atlanta Technical College on the south side of Atlanta, the first of their two community feedback meetings. City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane notably did not attend the meeting.

The presentation was so sharply criticized by the meeting attendees -- some who spoke well over their two minutes of allotted time and couldn't have cared less -- that City Planning canceled the second meeting on the north side, with an explanation that briefly appeared on their now-defunct Urban Ecology Framework website, saying that "the presentation and meeting format were not conducive to receiving feedback on the key concepts that were presented. We therefore chose to cancel the remaining meeting to respect everyone's time."

The local media weighed in on what happened at the November 6 meeting and the subsequent fallout -- from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to The Saporta Report to independent bloggers like Streets of Atlanta. Shortly thereafter, City Planning removed all materials and references to the November meetings from the now-defunct Urban Ecology website.  (The meeting materials you see linked on this website were saved prior to the City's deletion.)


At the end of December 2019, City Councilmembers J.P. Matzigkeit, District 8, and Matt Westmoreland, Post 2 At-Large, had said they planned to take matters in their own hands since, after a year of struggling to rewrite the Tree Protection Ordinance, the Department of City Planning hadn't delivered.

"They haven't provided details to me about that or what [the planning department] is planning to do," said Matzigkeit in a December 27, 2019 Reporter Newspapers article. "Our preference would be to work with the administration to get something in place, but we want to get something in place."

Westmoreland, who began chairing the Community Development and Human Services (CDHS) Committee in January 2020. said they plan to "reintroduce a 2014 draft rewrite as a starting point". Westmoreland hoped to have a first draft of the new tree ordinance by the end of the first quarter of 2020.



City Planning posted a new schedule on their now-defunct Urban Ecology Framework website which indicates the earliest we might have a new tree ordinance is in the fall of 2020. 

Andrew Walter, Urban Ecology Framework Project Manager Andrew Walter, stated at the January 15 Tree Commission Business Meeting that there would be no more public meetings regarding the tree ordinance rewrite.  


On March 12, 2020, a first draft was posted electronically by the Department of City Planning to the now-defunct Urban Ecology Framework website. This draft deviated considerably from the 2014 draft that Councilmember Matt Westmoreland had said the previous December that they would use.


On April 30, 2020, The Tree Next Door submitted their feedback on the March 12 first draft of the new Tree Protection Ordinance.


According to their now-deleted Urban Ecology Framework website, City Planning said their final recommendation for the TPO rewrite would be available in “early Summer 2020”. Originally there was supposed to be a second draft that would be available by the first week in June for public feedback, according to the timeline they had posted earlier, but that timetable was scrapped and City Planning seemed to indicate they were going from the first draft to final recommendations with no public comments in-between.


On June 25, 2020, there was a City Council Tree Ordinance Work Session held remotely via Zoom on the March 2020 draft.  Public input was limited to a voicemail call-in line and voiced strong opposition to the March 2020 draft. 

In advance of the meeting, the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods Tree Canopy Chair sent City Council a Tree Next Door document expressing disappointment that the Zoom workshop community meetings Andrew Water had promised would follow the first draft had never materialized, that the first draft prioritized developer interests over saving the tree canopy, and that the draft eschewed any type of measurable goal for protecting our tree canopy.  Also, the draft lacked any scientific evidence of what impact its policy changes would have on the tree canopy.

A citizens group presented an alternative draft that wasn't yet complete, highlighting the need for an early review of construction plans to preserve more trees, a longer public posting process, a multi-tier tree valuation system for tree preservation, and enhanced enforcement measures for the ordinance. City Planning, in turn, acknowledged the need for a better draft and presented a slide show on their “current thinking” stating that all trees would be “valued more highly”, design elements should be "sensitive to the site”, an "early tree review” would be incorporated in the permitting process, and five levels of "significance categories" would be used to value trees.



On January 21, 2021, the Department of City Planning posted their second draft of the Tree Ordinance rewrite to the new Tree Ordinance website they have been creating in conjunction with rewriting the Tree Ordinance.


Community feedback on the 2nd draft indicated that successive drafts were getting worse, not better.  The Tree Next Door posted their top 20 reasons why this draft was unacceptable; Trees Atlanta said that the draft was incomplete and lacked the necessary testing, and the South River Watershed Alliance said the draft represented a "backslide" from what we already have in our current tree ordinance.

On February 21, 2021, there was a remote City Council Work Session in which City Planning presented the highlights from their latest draft.  Public input was limited to a voicemail call-in line and again, they voiced strong opposition to the January 2020 draft. Chet Tisdale and Kathryn Kolb presented an updated alternative "Citizens Group Blended Draft", which at that time was still a work in progress. 


After consulting with TTND and Chet Tisdale and Kathryn Kolb, Trees Atlanta published 23 "Recommended Amendments to the Proposed TPO", saying in a cover letter that they could support the City's draft if it included these 23 amendments.


Livable Buckhead published its recommended changes to the City's proposed ordinance.  Chet Tisdale and Kathryn Kolb finalized their "Blended Draft" and submitted it to City Council.


On May 3, TTND submitted their own recommendations for the City's proposed ordinance, saying that they largely supported the Trees Atlanta recommendations but that their recommendations provided "additional considerations not fully expressed in the feedback we have seen to date and note the few points of difference significant enough to bring to the City's attention". 

The City Council Work Session scheduled for May 5 and the City Council vote on May 17 were both canceled and so far have not been rescheduled.


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article on June 7 noting that progress on this tree ordinance seems to have stalled.


Councilmember Matt Westmoreland stated that he plans to release a modified version of the City's Planning Department's latest ordinance within the coming month. Councilmembers Jennifer Ide and J.P. Matsigkeit have been working with Westmoreland to include in this version as much feedback as possible from the various interested parties while scaling it back to a more manageable length. 

Once the modified version of the City's ordinance has been released, Westmoreland will call for a Work Session to review the ordinance, and then he plans to put it before City Council for a vote.  While the timing of the Work Session and vote has yet to be determined, Westmoreland wants to have a new tree ordinance passed before the November election.


The Atlanta City Council called a special meeting on December 20, 2021 in which they decided to file Ordinance 21-0-0063 to amend the tree ordinance, which means the tree ordinance draft released last January (2021) has been put on hold.  We never did get to see the modified version of the tree ordinance that Councilmember Matt Westmoreland was working on with former Councilmembers Jennifer Ide and J.P. Matsigkeit.  IT was supposed to be first released in August 2021 and then in November 2021, but it was never released.  Ide and Matsigkeit did not run for reelection in 2021.  Westmoreland ran unopposed. 


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