Tree tweaks – Citizen group suggests policy changes

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt May 5, 2014
A fallen tree near Adair Dog Park in Decatur, Ga. The tree fell on the night of March 12. Photo by: Dan Whisenhunt

A fallen tree near Adair Dog Park in Decatur, Ga. The tree fell on the night of March 12. Photo by: Dan Whisenhunt

City Commissioners during their regular Monday meeting will discuss recommended changes to an ordinance that would create new rules for tree removal in Decatur.

Trees Decatur, a citizens’ group that is pushing for a stronger ordinance, released its own suggestions about how to improve it.

“Through one meeting with Patti Garrett and several emails to the rest of the commission, we have offered two recommendations on how they could improve the latest tree ordinance to not only promote tree plantings but also tree preservation through an incentive program and variance process,” said Catherine Fox with Trees Decatur.

Tree removal has become a hot topic as more builders move into the city and tear down older homes in order to use the lots for newer and bigger single family houses. In a recent example, a developer agreed to pay $7,000 to remove a tree at 109 Hibernia as part of a plan to build town homes.

Fox sent Decaturish a copy of the proposed recommendations, which are published at the end of this article. The most detailed suggestion has to do with the process of tree removal. Trees Decatur suggests the city, “Require a variance and public hearing to remove any portion of the remaining 25 percent of existing tree canopy on a residential lot.”

Decatur Commissioners considered passing an ordinance in January, but backed down after residents stormed the City Commission meeting in protest. Since that time, some residents have started their own initiative to replant trees in the city to boost Decatur’s canopy coverage. Decatur Metro recently published a recap of that group’s efforts.

There’s no dispute about the root of the problem: the canopy is decreasing. The most recent estimate shows that Decatur has a 45 percent canopy coverage, down from 45.7 percent in 2005.  Commissioners had considered passing a law that would set a citywide canopy goal of 50 percent. Commissioners later decided that the new ordinance would promote a “no net loss” policy based on the city’s current tree canopy level, 45 percent.

Here are the recommendations from Trees Decatur:

TREES DECATUR RECOMMENDATIONS ON TREE ORDINANCE April 25, 2014

The currently proposed tree ordinance is essentially a tree planting ordinance with little regard to preservation of existing trees, especially related to development/redevelopment activities that remove most of the healthy tree canopy in Decatur as stated by the City’s current arborist.

We request that these two important recommendations be included in the final version of the tree ordinance. We propose that they be applicable to situations involving an application for a land disturbance or building permit in a residential area (not commercial). Both of these recommendations are easy to implement and will address the primary cause of healthy tree canopy removal in the city. They will also result in actual preservation of the existing larger healthy trees in our community.

1. Double canopy credit for preservation of specimen trees in the buildable area.

• Specimen tree is defined as a dogwood or redbud that is 10 dbh or greater; hardwood that is 27 dbh or greater; and a pine that is 30 dbh pine or greater.

2. Require a variance and public hearing to remove any portion of the remaining 25% of existing tree canopy on a residential lot.

• Add language to Sec. 86-85 that issuance of a tree removal permit would not be permitted for the existing 25% of healthy tree canopy on a residential lot without a variance (see suggested variance process).

• Add a definition for “existing tree canopy” such as current healthy tree canopy within the city limits of the City of Decatur at the time of ordinance adoption.” Specify that it is canopy already in place and not newly created though replanting.

• Remove the following conditions in the same section that permit removal of existing 25% of tree canopy.

o “Unavoidable site modifications resulting from land disturbance or land development activities will require the removal or result in the destruction of the tree

o Site plan modifications or the use of alternative designs to prevent removal or irreparable damage to the tree are impossible or not practical, based on a cost and benefit analysis

o Intended use of property cannot be achieved without tree removal”

• Expand the description of the variance process. Use similar adopted language of the
City’s Stream Buffer Ordinance regarding methods and criteria for granting that variance

• Include a condition in approved variances that require prescriptive measures for all remaining existing healthy trees such as maintenance of tree fence at the drip line, additional mulch between the drip line and the tree trunk, signage, etc. Enforce the measures through the use of stop work order for violations.

Proposed Variance Process based on the City of Decatur’s Stream Buffer Protection Ordinance 5.2. Variance Procedures

Variances from the tree canopy ordinance requirements may be granted in accordance with the
following provisions:

(1) Where a parcel was platted prior to the effective date of this ordinance, and its shape, topography or other existing physical condition prevents land development consistent with this ordinance, and the City of Decatur, GA Zoning Board of Appeals finds and determines that the requirements of this ordinance prohibit the otherwise lawful use of the property by the owner, the City of Decatur, GA Zoning Board of Appeals may grant a variance from the tree ordinance requirements hereunder, provided such variance require mitigation measures to offset the effects of any proposed land development on the parcel.

(2) Except as provided above, the City Clerk of the City of Decatur, GA or his/her designee shall grant no variance from any provision of this ordinance without first conducting a public hearing on the application for variance and authorizing the granting of the variance by an affirmative vote by the City of Decatur Zoning Board of Appeals. The City Clerk of the City of Decatur, GA or his/her designee shall give public notice of each such public hearing in a newspaper of general circulation within the City of Decatur, GA. The City Clerk of the City of Decatur, GA or his/her designee shall require that the applicant post a sign giving notice of the proposed variance and the public hearing. The sign shall be of a size and posted in such a location on the property as to be clearly visible from the primary adjacent road right-of-way.

Variances will be considered only in the following cases:

a. When a property’s shape, topography or other physical conditions existing at the time of the adoption of this ordinance prevents land development unless an existing tree canopy variance is granted.

b. Unusual circumstances when strict adherence to the minimal tree canopy requirements in the ordinance would create an extreme hardship.

Variances will not be considered when, following adoption of this ordinance, actions of any property owner of a given property have created conditions of a hardship on that property.

(3) At a minimum, a variance request shall include the following information:

a. A site map that includes locations of all trees, streams, wetlands, floodplain boundaries and other natural features, as determined by field survey;

b. A description of the shape, size, topography, slope, soils, vegetation and other physical characteristics of the property;

c. A detailed site plan that shows the locations of all existing and proposed structures and other impervious cover, the limits of all existing and proposed land disturbance, locations of trees on and in the boundary of the property. The exact area of the tree canopy to be affected shall be accurately and clearly indicated;

d. Documentation of unusual hardship should the minimum tree canopy requirements be maintained;

e. At least one alternative plan, which does not include reducing the tree canopy coverage less than 25%, or an explanation of why such a site plan is not possible;

f. A calculation of the total tree canopy proposed removal; and,

g. Proposed mitigation, if any, for the allowed removal such as prescriptive measures for all remaining existing healthy trees such as maintenance of tree fence at the drip line, additional mulch between the drip line and the tree trunk, signage, etc. If no mitigation is proposed, the request must include an explanation of why none is being proposed.

(4) The following factors will be considered in determining whether to issue a variance:

a. The shape, size, topography, slope, soils, vegetation and other physical characteristics of the property;

b. The locations of all trees, streams on the property, including along property boundaries;

c. The location and extent of the proposed tree canopy removal; and,

d. Whether alternative designs are possible which require less or no minimum tree canopy removal;

e. The long-term and construction stormwater-quality impacts of the proposed variance to the property and neighborhood;

f. Whether issuance of the variance is at least as protective of natural resources and the environment.

About Dan Whisenhunt

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

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

  • Treesrock

    The current ordinance under discussion gives 1800 Square feet canopy credit to a two inch replant in expectation of it growing to that size, so why wouldn’t you give an existing healthy tree that is already established at least that much credit. As it is now, builders are actually penalized for keeping an existing tree in that they have to put up an escrow in case the tree dies, plus actually receive less credit if it is replanted with a new tree. It doesn’t make economic sense for them to retain any tree unless the client demands it. Doubling the credit is the right idea, at least that give some incentive to retain, but still might be less canopy credit than a two inch replant.

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