Timber: Decatur City Commission treed by residents

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt January 22, 2014
Jan. 21, 2014. Decatur City Commissioners and Planning Director Amanda Thompson listen to during a presentation about a proposed tree ordinance. The commission voted 4-1 to defer approving the new policy that would regulate tree removal in the city. Photo by: Dan Whisenhunt

Jan. 21, 2014. Decatur City Commissioners and Planning Director Amanda Thompson listen to during a presentation about a proposed tree ordinance. The commission voted 4-1 to defer approving the new policy that would regulate tree removal in the city. Photo by: Dan Whisenhunt

The public outrage on display at last night’s Decatur City Commission meeting shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

But what was surprising, to me at least, was the near-consensus view that this ordinance wasn’t ready for prime time.

Even the people who were in favor of it had problems with the wording. Catherine Fox said the ordinance is a “great step forward” but added that people need more time to understand its implications.

“Five days isn’t enough really for a lot of people to understand it, as you can see,” Fox said. “We should adopt it now if that’s our only choice, adopt it tonight with changes as needed … or put it off for a month.”

Fox added that she’d like to extend the 90-day tree removal moratorium, which ends Jan. 24, for another month. Commissioners didn’t consider extending it.

For the longest time, it didn’t look like any of the commissioners wanted to consider doing anything at all. Mayor Jim Baskett was the most ardent supporter of passing the ordinance, even though he admitted it had some flaws that would need tweaks. He said he couldn’t make the motion to approve it, however, and other commissioners were reluctant to do so. The motion he recommended was to approve the ordinance as it was and tweak it later.

But that just wouldn’t have gone over well.

Commissioners received a glut of emails and phone calls after the city released a draft copy of its ordinance on Jan. 16, less than one week before they planned to vote on it. The comments exploded over at Decatur Metro and on the city’s website set up for public input.

People didn’t understand the ordinance, a complex document that was 17 pages long. Older residents who aren’t as tech savvy as the city’s staff had trouble logging on to the city’s website to provide their input.

When City Planning Director Amanda Thompson showed commissioners a spreadsheet with examples of what the new ordinance might cost residents, you could almost hear the eyes popping in the room. I’ve asked for that spreadsheet and I haven’t gotten it. I’ll post it here when I receive it.

The ordinance brought some pretty high profile speakers to the commission meeting. There were at least two lawyers who questioned the vagueness of the definitions in the new policy. The word “lawsuit” was used several times by residents.

Atlanta Deputy COO Hans Utz, who lives in Decatur, was there. He told commissioners that in his experience bad policies typically don’t get better once they’re enacted.

“The experience we’ve had in Atlanta is it’s basically untouchable once it’s on the books,” Utz said.

Utz’ comments were convincing enough that Commissioner Patti Garrett referred to them when she made her motion to delay the approving ordinance. Commissioners agreed to add language that would alleviate the concerns of property owners.

The suggested tweaks will reduce the city’s overall canopy goal from the 55 percent suggested in the original ordinance to 50 percent, and reduce the costs for tree removal from $1.50 per square foot to 75 cents per square foot. The tweaks also increase the amount of impervious service that property owners need to add to trigger a tree replanting from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Commissioners approved Garrett’s motion 4-1, with Mayor Baskett casting the only “no” vote. The ordinance likely won’t be considered again until March. Even the vote to delay it was confusing. Many people in the room, including myself, had to double check to be certain we knew exactly what the commission had just approved.

If commissioners decide to try this again, and not drive city staff crazy in the process, they will need to redouble their efforts to get the public to buy into it. This policy had a lot of detractors and only half-hearted support from many of its proponents.

It simply wasn’t going to fly. Commissioners need to get this before the public well in advance of any vote.

Five days simply isn’t enough time to give the public a chance to consider something this complex.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

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