Mulch – More on Decatur’s new tree regs

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt May 20, 2014
Backyard water oak. Photo by Kathryn Kolb, courtesy of Trees Decatur

Backyard water oak. Photo by Kathryn Kolb, courtesy of Trees Decatur

When it was finally over, Decatur’s new tree ordinance passed with relatively little fanfare.

Commissioners on May 19 voted unanimously to approve it, even though polling among residents showed strong opposition to it. The new ordinance sets new rules on how many trees residents can remove and at what cost, while promoting growth in the city’s tree canopy.

Mayor Jim Baskett said the most recent poll had fewer respondents than previous ones. In January 237 residents commented on the ordinance in January as it was then written, and 77 percent were opposed or strongly opposed to it. In April, public input waned: 80 percent of the 35 residents who responded were opposed or strongly opposed to the ordinance.

The commission meeting room was much quieter during the May 19 vote, too.

Baskett made note of that.

“We’ve tried to address many of the issues and concerns that were brought to us,” Baskett said. “The fact that this room is not full of people tonight may be construed as we wore people down. It may be construed as the fact that we’ve addressed a lot of the issues people had and they didn’t feel as strongly about it.”

City Commissioners first started looking at the ordinance in October of 2013 and enacted a 90 day moratorium on tree removal. The moratorium ended Jan. 24, three days after city commissioners scrapped the first version of the ordinance after a public outcry. At the May 19 meeting there were some speakers, but it wasn’t the barrage commissioners faced back in January.

Commissioners did make one amendment to the ordinance, to provide a sliding scale for property owners that have greater than 45 percent canopy coverage. The ordinance sets a no net loss canopy goal of 45 percent, based on the city’s current level of tree cover.

Some other important changes in the ordinance, as noted by the city:

– Property owners will be able to remove up to three healthy trees within 18 months without penalty. The owners will be required to fill out a free informational permit that will help the city track changes to its canopy.

– It defines a protected tree as one being 6 inches or greater in diameter at breast height.

– The “no net loss” requirement goes into effect whenever a project requires a land disturbance permit.

– The trigger for the replanting requirement is a 15 percent increase in a property’s impervious cover or gross floor area.

The city is currently working to hire an arborist who will enforce the new ordinance.

Members of Trees Decatur, a group that fought hard for stronger regulations, said the ordinance wasn’t perfect, but better than what the city had.

“Personally I was hesitant about the first roll out,” Trees Decatur member Catherine Fox said. “I thought it was too overreaching. I think that changes have been made to the ordinance that have improved it greatly.”

Chris Billingsley said the new ordinance is still too overreaching.

“It’s supported by a small group of individual people in the city of Decatur,” Billingsley said. “Your own website says the vast majority of people who responded to a request were opposed to it. It expands the power and reach of the government.”

The work on the ordinance isn’t over. The effective date of the ordinance is July 7. City Planning Director Amanda Thompson said any projects that are currently ongoing won’t be affected by the new ordinance. There will be public workshops on the new regulations and the city will create new forms to help implement it.

There will be a period of adjustment for residents, Commissioner Scott Drake said.

“I do think in this case it is a confusing new ordinance so I think there’s going to be an education that needs to happen,” he said. “I think the arborist is going to be very busy answering questions.”

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • judgebrandies

    In all fairness, to say that polling results showed strong opposition is a bit misleading. It is true that the Decatur Next polls showed strong opposition, however at last look there were only 40 odd positions on that forum. During the 2010 Strategic Planning meetings, over 1500 residents supported stronger tree protections in the city. While it might have been advisable, there was never a truly representative polling of city residents re this issue.

  • Chris Billingsley

    Thanks Judge. As someone who “participated” in the first strategic plan, and read every update, revision, and final draft of the last one, let me provide my perception, my “reality” of what the strategic planning process was all about.
    Fourteen years ago, I attended one meeting of the first plan and was so alarmed with the prospect of a radical takeover of local government policy making, that I wrote a scathing email to all CSD teachers voicing my concerns. Even though my participation was limited to one meeting, I was listed as a “contributor” in the final report. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Some people brag that over 1500 people participated in the second plan but there is no way of telling how many of these were Decatur residents or if people that attended several meeting were counted multiple times. And it’s not as if all 1500 participants strongly supported any aspect of the plan. There was no vote. People who opposed aspects of the plan were never allowed to address the entire group. Opposition groups were never allowed to form. And when the small group decisions were finally made, it was announced that “the gatekeepers” would take all the complicated information (the average citizen was too stupid to understand it) and simplify it into bullet points. Even though many people were concerned about rising taxes, congestion, neighborhood decline and crime, the strategic plan ELITES (liberal interest groups and their allies in Decatur government) had already decided the direction of the government, which was more smart growth, neighborhood density, alternate transportation, endless support of “diversity”, and of course, restrictions on private property rights. The tree decision made Monday did not surprise me.
    But I sense a greater victory. For the first time, a broad group of Decatur citizens, mostly liberals, a few Libertarians, and one or two die-hard conservatives, came together for a brief moment to oppose bigger government and more regulations. In the same way that some people saw Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat as the beginning of the Reagan Revolution, I saw the vote as the start of something that could really change Decatur. I hope this tree seedling grows.

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