Illegally Removed Trees

According to the City's published tree data, the number of trees removed illegally has more than doubled over the past four years. In 2023, the record-setting number of 1,283 trees removed illegally still does not include an unknown number of trees removed without a permit from 33 acres at 2811 Forrest Road.

(Click on the image below to enlarge.)

illegally removed trees thru cy 20233
Chart note: Before 2020, tree loss data was provided only by fiscal year (FY), from July 1 to June 30. 


Why Illegal Tree Removal is Surging

1. Lack of Immediate Enforcement:

  • No city agency is currently able or willing to stop illegal tree destruction as it occurs.

  • Section 158-33 of the Tree Ordinance requires the Atlanta Police Department (APD) to stop all work whenever a tree is being destroyed without a permit.  However, due to staff shortages, the APD no longer responds to calls about illegal tree-cutting.*

    • When the police used to respond, they typically arrived within 15 minutes, effectively stopping the activity.
    • The APD has suggested transferring enforcement to the Arborist Division, which is not staffed to respond quickly and is closed on the weekends, when most illegal activity occurs.

  • Initially, we were told to call the City's Code Busters number instead of the police, but that number has resulted in unreturned voicemails.

2. Insufficient Deterrents:

  • Violators face only a misdemeanor fine of $500 to $1,000 per tree illegally destroyed.

    • This penalty applies only if the offender is caught and after the trees are already down.
    • Enforcement focuses on collecting fines and fees rather than preventing illegal removals.
    • There is a financial incentive for the City to allow trees to be removed without a permit since leaving trees standing generates no revenue for the City.

  • Many fines and fees for illegal cutting go unpaid.

    • Between fiscal years 2009 and 2019, the City failed to collect over $2 million assessed.
    • The Arborist Department does not attempt to collect unpaid fines after two years.

  • The Arborist Division no longer issues court citations, which have been very effective in deterring illegal removal in the past.

  • Complaint-based enforcement misses much of the illegal tree-cutting.  A 2020 City Audit found that, based on overall tree canopy loss, six times more trees might be lost than reported or permitted.

*Some residents have found the APD will respond to other illegal activities near the site of illegal tree removal, such as missing license plates or improperly parked cars. They will report these less severe activities instead to get police presence at the job site where trees are being removed illegally.

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