Replanting – Trees Decatur tweaks its message

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt February 10, 2014
From left to right, Catherine Carter, Amanda Davis , Annie Archbold and Catherine Fox sit down on Feb. 9 to talk about how to move forward with promoting tree protection in the city of Decatur, GA.

From left to right, Catherine Carter, Amanda Davis, Annie Archbold and Catherine Fox sit down on Feb. 9 to talk about how to move forward with promoting tree protection in the city of Decatur, GA.

On Sunday, four women sat around Annie Archbold’s kitchen table at her Sycamore Drive home in Decatur and talked about the future of the city’s trees.

Archbold, Catherine Fox, Catherine Carter and Amanda Davis drank coffee together for an hour while they brainstormed.

Fox looked for ways to lower her profile in the debate about how to protect and increase the city’s tree cover.

“I’m a lightning rod and it’s not working,” Fox said.

Catherine Fox, leader of Trees Decatur

Catherine Fox, leader of Trees Decatur, shares a lighthearted moment during a Feb. 9 meeting about improving the city of Decatur’s tree ordinance.

Fox owns an environmental consulting firm and is leader of Trees Decatur, a group that submitted a 700-signature petition to the city of Decatur in September asking for stricter laws regulating tree removal. It kicked off a months-long process that culminated in a contentious Jan. 21 City Commission meeting.

Commissioners stung the petitioners when they voted to table the proposed tree ordinance for “tweaks” after numerous residents spoke out against it. It was going to be considered again in March, but commissioners have delayed that vote, too.

Fox said during the Jan. 21 commission meeting that the proposed ordinance wasn’t perfect but still better than the city’s current one. A few days later, on Jan. 26, Fox attended a meeting organized by residents who had concerns about the new ordinance. One of the residents there placed the blame for the controversy on Fox, and the two sniped at each other for a moment until the meeting organizers intervened.

The residents of that meeting ultimately launched their own petition drive urging commissioners to completely rewrite the proposed regulations.

Fox said Trees Decatur pushed for the changes, but didn’t have a hand in crafting the ordinance the commission ultimately tabled. That was done by city staff and a consultant, Technical Forestry Services, for $7,700.

“We had the goals. We had the saber rattling. We had 800 supporters,” Fox said. “The city is the one that wrote the ordinance.”

Carter said the Trees Decatur needs to find a way to distance itself from the controversial policy.

“They’re associating us with hundreds of thousands of dollars with penalties,” Carter said.

In recent days the Trees Decatur group has stepped up its messaging efforts. It launched a new website. It expressed an interest in joining the Arbor Day celebration planned by Chad Stogner, a property owner who spoke at the Jan. 26 meeting.

Fox said she’s willing to find compromises and make the ordinance better. But will the commissioners be willing to try it again?

“Our goal really is to get the city to adopt a stronger ordinance,” Fox said. “I have no idea if they will now. They’ve been shell shocked.”

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  • Kathryn Kolb

    It saddens me to read this article. It is great to have the news coverage of such an important topic – the trees of Decatur, but instead of focusing on the pros and cons of real ideas about solving real problems, this article stoops to hyping the gossip of controversy about people who are, at the end of the day, sacrificing their time to make Decatur a better place to live, at no benefit to themselves, and are genuinely and painstakingly working through ideas and making compromises. Yes, we all know Decatur is a small town, but the trees issue is big, and it reaches far beyond our village and out to our newest challenging frontier–how do we, as responsible human beings, live in a way that is both comfortable for ourselves and at the same time allows the fundamental life-sustaining processes of the earth to continue or be restored? The challenge of the American Frontier used to be how to cut down so many trees, and Paul Bunyan was the hero — now the challenge is how to keep the trees standing — so we need some new heroes!

    How can we in Decatur allow over 50% of our trees to be cut down so that we may live in 3-4000 square foot homes (plus detached garage) while we expect people in other villages of tiny homes or huts not to cut down 50% of their rainforests? Scientists have shown that merely removing 10% of tree canopy in a watershed significantly degrades water quality, plus trees moderate temperature as well as sustain the right chemical mix in the air we take for granted. Trees are literally the lungs of the earth–can the earth survive on half or less of its lungs? It is clear that our entire planet is now at risk of losing the kind of established life-sustaining balances in temperature and air and water quality that forests moderate — shouldn’t we, who are well educated and well off, be rushing to plant as many trees as possible rather than still, in the fashion of the 19th century, insist we have the right to cut down as many trees as we want? Shouldn’t we be leading our region and even the world and setting an example to others?

    It gives new meaning to the word “NIMBY”, that we, who live in an affluent area, still hold that we have the right to eliminate the forest in our region so that we may make a bit more money, or have bit larger home, or look a just bit more successful than the guy down the street, while leaving it up to others, somewhere else, to take care of the trees and forests that serve as the backbone of our green infrastructure. Where are those others who will keep their trees standing to balance our continuing to cut down ours–can we count on neighborhoods in Norcross? Dunwoody? Smyrna? Conyers? Kennesaw?

    Our parks and greenspaces, though important, are but a tiny fraction of the landscape. Can all the life-sustaining elements of nature survive in those few tiny places, while we continue to degrade all the rest of the landscape? Could we survive if we lost all our internal organs except a bit of lung, a corner of liver, and a fragment of spleen?

    A look at Google Earth will show that most all the land is being used for something that is providing some income for someone somewhere — who do we ask to take a little less profit in order to balance out the extra trees we want to take as we place larger and larger houses on smaller and smaller lots in our neighborhood? Can we count on our neighbors not to cut down their trees while we go ahead and cut the ones in our yards? Can we ask merchants to have smaller parking lots? Can we ask aging grandparents to not sell older properties to developers? Can we ask our farmers to leave a little extra strip on the edge of their fields to allow trees to grow back? Ask timber growers to not plant quite all their land in pine plantations but leave a little piece here and there for the native forests to re-grow? Can we ask a developer of expensive beach front property to build 11 rather than 14 condos just to leave a bit of natural beach? Can we ask a world-wide paper company to voluntarily make a little less profit by not cutting down quite all the forest on an island in the Phillipines that is the last home to endangered species — can we expect them to do that just because it’s the right thing to do? We all know what the answer is – all of us must do our part – but will we?

    • Michael Zwick

      According to TreesDecatur’s site, there is evidence for a 6% decline from 1991 to 2010. Hardly the 50% decline you mention in your post. I cannot think of a person who dislikes trees. The issue ought to be what is the most effective policy to encourage residents of the City of Decatur to encourage growth in the tree canopy. The current tree ordnance seems poorly conceived, punitive in its structure, and excessively costly. A forward-looking, more positive policy would in my opinion lead to a better outcome for trees in Decatur.

      • TomWestside

        TreesDecatur’s recommendations do include incentives and remove the elements that some homeowners found punitive in the city’s proposal. You really need to read our recommendations — you are responding to a draft ordinance that we want to see udpated as well. You may find that we are more in agreement than you thought.

        In the city’s Tree Canopy Facts document (, you’ll see that the loss of 1% of tree canopy is equivalent to losing 732 fully mature, large trees. When you think of that, “only 6%” is a significant hit to our tree canopy — and keep in mind, 6% is a *net* loss of 4,392 of these large specimen trees with 30-inch diameter trunks (or a great many more small trees).
        The math behind this calculation is explained under “How We Calculated” at the top of page 2 in the document linked above.
        How many new saplings does it take to replace just one of those towering oaks that we lose from time to time? Visit and you’ll see that a 1-inch post oak will intercept 30 gallons of stormwater runoff a year, and reduce atmospheric carbon by 6 pounds. Not bad work for a little tree!

        Now, how about the 30-inch specimen post oak? (Full disclosure: I have one in my back yard.) It intercepts a whopping 10,996 gallons of stormwater runoff a year, and absorbs almost half a ton of atmospheric carbon, more than 80% of the CO2 emitted by an average sedan over the course of a year.

        So, yes — planting trees is an essential part of maintaining the urban forest. So is preserving the large trees we are lucky enough to live among.

        • Michael Zwick

          I agree that the TreesDecatur updated recommendations are vastly improved over the initial proposal discussed by the city.

          I think it is worth pointing out again that 6% is not 50% as indicated in the original post. Further, it is not obvious that the loss of tree cover is all fully mature trees (as you assume). But even if your assumptions are fully correct, there still remains 94% of the trees from 1991. If I make the same assumptions as you did, that means that there are 68,808 trees remaining (and you can calculate how much storm water and CO2 they absorb).

          I just do not think this as large a “crisis” as has been advocated by a vocal minority – but rather is an opportunity for good policy to change a trend and make contributions to a sustainable planet. Hyperbole, as shown in the original post I responded to, does not help with a rational discussion or developing thoughtful solutions or incentives.

  • TomWestside

    I’m disappointed that this article focuses on personalities rather than the substance of Trees Decatur’s proposals. We have listened carefully to our neighbors’ concerns and proposed several major modifications, which are not even mentioned in this article. Please take the time to read our recommendations at and write something substantive about the group’s recommendations.

  • Richat Structure

    “Fox said Trees Decatur pushed for the changes, but didn’t have a hand in crafting the ordinance.”

    “Our goal really is to get the city to adopt a stronger ordinance,” Fox said.

    “I’m disappointed that this article focuses on personalities rather than the substance of Trees Decatur’s proposals.”

    “…rather than the substance of Trees Decatur’s proposals. We have listened carefully to our neighbors’ concerns and proposed several major modifications”


    So… there is no hand in crafting of an ordinance by Trees Decatur, but there is advocation of a stronger ordinance by Trees Decatur, which will hopefully implement several modifications (in crafting of a new ordinance) by Trees Decatur.

    Do you even read what you write? Others do.

    • TomWestside

      Richat, we Trees Decatur members don’t work for the city. The city developed the ordinance. We’re proposing changes to the ordinance, which align with many of our neighbors’ concerns. We urge the city to create a new version of the ordinance, addressing our concerns as well as those of many of our neighbors.
      Please help me understand which portions of that are contradictory or unclear, and I’ll try to help.

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