Growing consensus – City Commission sees through trees

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt March 4, 2014
Decatur City Hall

Decatur City Hall

The city commission’s recent meeting about making Decatur’s tree ordinance stronger wasn’t nearly as intense as it was a few weeks ago.

Commissioners talked for a good hour on March 3 about how to salvage what remained of the controversial first draft. It was clear that much of what angered residents about first the draft wasn’t going to make it into the next one.

The commissioners only addressed the residential portion of the new law. They discussed it during the 6:30 work session, which drew a big crowd. Mayor Jim Baskett asked the audience not to chime in during the city commissioners’ discussion.

“Wait and save that until you see what kind of consensus we come up with,” Baskett said.

Here’s what they came up with:

– There is no mandated 50 percent canopy goal for residents. There will only be a no net loss goal based on the city’s current tree canopy level, 45 percent. The city’s 50 percent goal will become something the city aspires to but it won’t be mandated by the new law.

– The city will require a permit to remove every tree, but any resident will be able remove three trees within an 18 month period without triggering the ordinance. The ordinance would be triggered when the resident seeks a permit to remove a fourth tree. Under the ordinance, the first three permits will be for informational purposes so the city can keep track of the city’s evolving tree canopy, City Manager Peggy Merriss said. It would also give the city an opportunity to make suggestions to the homeowner about how to increase their tree canopy on other parts of their property, she said.

Under the tree ordinance, a protected tree would be anything that’s six or more inches in diameter.

– The ordinance would be triggered if you added 15 percent of impervious surface – like a driveway – to your property.

– The new draft will retain language from the first draft regarding protection of boundary trees. City Planner Amanda Thompson said under the boundary tree rules, “You’re required to show when you’re impacting any protected boundary tree. You have to establish money in escrow for their protection.”

– Tree bank fees would not be used to pay the city’s arborist.

Commissioners expect to have a draft ordinance ready by April 7, and will consider adopting the ordinance on May 19. Baskett said the city is working with that timetable because of the current rewrite of the city’s zoning code to create a Unified Development Ordinance.

“What we’re trying to do is meet a schedule that’s somewhat dictated by the unified development ordinance,” Baskett said. “We’ve been told that if we want to fold this into the unified to development ordinance, we need to get this to them by early summer.”

People in support of the ordinance, a group represented by Trees Decatur, showed up to the meeting Monday.

Resident Chuck Adair said, “I’m OK with most of it” but added that he didn’t think people should get to remove up to three trees with no penalty.

“I think our trees are part of our larger ecosystem,” he said. “I think if you’ve got a stream running through your property, we don’t argue it’s my property and I can dam the stream. I don’t think you would argue that you could pollute the air and go out and burn all your leaves because it’s on your property. The trees are a similar community resource and they’re an important part of the ecosystem.”

Catherine Fox, a member of Trees Decatur, said the commission should remove language in the ordinance that’s overly-vague. She also suggested that the city consider issuing a “tree bond” that the city could use to buy up lots that are too small for a large home.

“We could go to these tiny lots and say that lot is too small for a big house,” she said. “Maybe the city could buy that land. If we had tree bond money, maybe we could do it.”

In other commission business:

– At the end of the commission meeting, Mayor Baskett announced that the church property at 109 Hibernia Avenue will be on the Zoning Board of Appeals Agenda for March 10 at 7:30 pm. A company that wants to develop that property, Thrive Homes, is asking for a “variance from the supplementary regulations to high density single-family zoning districts.”

– Approved another change order for work to the Beacon Municipal Complex in the amount of $153,000. It is the fourth change order approved by commissioners. The original contract amount was $30.4 million. If commissioners approve this fourth change order, the contract will increase to a total of $32.24 million. The total project budget is $38.3 million.

Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon said there will likely be more change orders before the project is completed.

– Approved an agreement with the Georgia Department of Transportation for a $1.3 million transportation enhancement grant that will pay for the Oakhurst Streetscape project. The grant will require a $325,000 match from the city. Once the process is completed, the city will begin advertising for bids on the project. The total cost is expected to be $2.5 million, with additional money coming from the city’s 2007 general obligation bond and sales tax money. Saxon said that work on the project should begin in the next four to six months.

– Approved easements for an apartment project at 160 Clairemont Avenue being developed by Paces Properties. As part of the agreement, Paces is building a new sidewalk and providing trees and landscape improvements along Montgomery Street between Commerce and Clairemont, and installing new bike lanes on Commerce between Clairemont and West Ponce de Leon, Saxon says.

“We’re getting an awful lot of good stuff out of this,” Mayor Baskett said.

– Approved an agreement with the firm TSW for Phase 2 of the Unified Development Ordinance. The contract amount is not to exceed $252,475. Under the current timetable, there should be a second comprehensive draft of the UDO ready by September 2014. There are several public UDO meetings scheduled throughout March and April.

City blog has published the following details about the upcoming UDO meetings:

Community Character | March 12 | Decatur City Hall | 7-9pm

What defines Decatur’s “community character”? This session attempts to answer that question, as well as how such character might be preserved, and will include a review of possible tools, the advantages and disadvantage of each, and a public discussion around competing goals.

Stormwater | March 26 | Decatur City Hall | 7-9pm

How can post-development stormwater be better managed, and how will such approaches affect concurrent goals such as tree preservation or housing diversity? This session charts the common ground.

Sustainability | April 16 | Decatur City Hall | 7-9pm

How does the community feel about incorporating “green standards” into buildings and sites? Are we willing to accept increased costs to achieve certain environmental goals? If so, how, and under what circumstances?

New/Amended Zoning Districts | Decatur City Hall | 7-9pm

The Strategic Plan’s goals for a more diversified housing mix reflect a gap — what we’re calling the missing middle — between our predominantly single-family residential and our downtown. This session explores the idea of transitional districts to accommodate things like live/work units, downtown-friendly townhouses, small-scale apartment buildings, neighborhood-scaled mixed use, cottage courts, and more, and gauges the circumstances under which such solutions might make sense.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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