Dear Decaturish – Development is first big test of Decatur’s tree ordinance

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt March 9, 2015

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The Forkner Drive townhouse project sign. Photo provided by Steve Collins.

The Forkner Drive townhouse project sign. Photo provided by Steve Collins.

Dear Decaturish,

If you’ve recently driven down Forkner Drive near Church Street in the City of Decatur, you’ve probably seen a billboard on Forkner near the corner advertising new town-homes. The project will include 25, four bedroom townhouses (in the upper $500’s) on three, heavily wooded, former single family residential lots.

This development – by St. Clair Holdings – apparently is the first major application or test of the City’s new tree ordinance.

Aside from the sheer density and height of the townhouses, many neighbors are concerned about the developer’s plan to cut down virtually all the trees on the property and remove as much as 10 feet of soil in a swath well over 60 feet wide by nearly 200 feet long. And that’s just on one side of the proposed development – the north side that adjoins the back yards of at least seven homeowners on Old Decatur Circle.

The soil removal and the construction of a huge retaining wall that will be 6-10 feet tall and less than three feet from the Old Decatur homes’ rear property lines would also destroy or severely damage the root system of at least a dozen mature hardwood trees and numerous smaller trees in Old Decatur back yards.

The City is still reviewing the developer’s plans, but neighbors fear that the development might be approved very shortly. The new Decatur tree ordinance may have little, if any, impact on a final decision — despite wording in the tree ordinance about how Decatur values trees in order to maintain clean air, wildlife, shade, noise buffering, property values, etc

As per the minimum requirements of the tree ordinance, the developer has offered to plant a few, smaller trees for neighbors on Old Decatur Circle whose trees they kill or severely damage with their dirt removal. But they will be required to replace less than half of the trees they take down on the three existing Forkner lots.

Neighbors are puzzled and troubled by the fact that the City tree ordinance – in its first real test – could be ineffective in maintaining tree coverage in the City and protecting neighborhoods from big developments – especially those that so negatively impact individual homeowners and their trees.

– Steve Collins, Decatur

Editor’s note: Decaturish reached out to Planning Director Amanda Thompson for comment on this letter. Her response …

“This project is still under review and has not been issued a building permit at this time. … The property is zoned (High Density Single Family), which allows townhouses to be constructed in accordance with all of the city’s other land development regulations. The Old Decatur Circle property is zoned HDSF as well which is why their yards are smaller than a typical detached single family lot.

“This is a complex project that we are still working with the applicant and adjoining property owners to determine the impact on boundary trees. We are taking the time needed to identify those impacts.  We understand that the developers and adjoining residents would like answers quickly, however we must take the time we need to ensure that we are properly interpreting and enforcing the city’s rules and regulations.”

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Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • Scottie98

    I think Amanda Thompson did a good job of not addressing Mr. Collins’ concerns. Mr. Collins isn’t challenging the zoning of the lots. (Aside: Does ANYONE remember seeing a notice of public hearing to get these SF lots re-zoned as HDSF?? I sure don’t, and I have lived on Forkner for 13+ years and drive past this site at least twice a day.) Too, Mr. Collins isn’t pressuring city officials to tell residents right this second what they intend to do vis a vis tree ordinance enforcement. Of COURSE we want the City to take its time to figure out the best resolution for the parties, which also falls in line with the ordinance. I think Mr. Collins just wants the City to adhere to its own regulations, and to be completely transparent with residents as to its thought process. I would invite Ms. Thompson to try again in responding to this editorial.

  • Tommy

    No re-zoning needed, as that side of Forkner has been HDSF, for years, which I would think is is the reason Old Decatur exists, 218 Forkner townhomes exist, Regency 222 high density exists, and those old apartments on Forkner. I actually think Amanda’s response is appropriate.

    • Rick

      Amanda’s reponse is boiler plate. A response any government official gives for any issue when asked before things are signed and set in stone – “we are looking into it”. The issue is not zoning. The tree canopy is being destroyed and the developer seems to be coming after the neighbors trees as well. To me the point of the post seems to be the city’s struggle to understand its own ordinance – let alone enforce it.

      • Andrew Dowling

        This unfortunately happens all the time to environmental legislation. It gets passed. People cheer. And then the governments involved roll over and make exceptions/variances to the first person willing to dish out the cold-hard cash. It’s pretty pathetic.

  • Burt

    Considering that our schools are overcrowded and that families with children are revenue negative, why do we still allow developers to rip down single family homes and put up high end town homes? I understand that apartments and condos tend to attract a lot of childless families, but town homes like these will attract families. Decatur should reconsider its zoning laws to restrict developments like these.

  • An American Patriot

    Folks, let’s quit fooling around and get this project going. The City of Decatur and the City Schools of Decatur especially, both need the revenue. The quicker the better and maybe MY tax relief for being OLD won’t ALL be taken away. We need money in the School Coffers FAST and then maybe we won’t need as much……Oh, silly me, I’m just an old man dreaming of that nice vacation that might have been were it not for plans that aren’t thought out completely by the School Bored. REMEMBER THE DeVRY MISTAKE.

  • Peripatetian

    Have the same reaction to the planning director’s response as several other readers. During the very long development and revision of the tree ordinance, did city staff fail to consider enough real world examples of how it would be applied?

  • Jackson

    Approving such developments just for new revenue is short sighted. Adding 50-75 new residents to a space occupied by 3 familes takes a load on the infrastructure including the school system; the main reasons for families choose to make Decatur their home. Burt mentioned, these townhomes are catered for families than singles. End of the day as city residents, we need to assess the quality of life and property values being affected.

  • Catherine Fox

    With the new walmart coming in and all the increased traffic expected on Forkner and its intersection with Church, shouldn’t a traffic study be performed before this project is permitted to see if the 25 new units will overburden an already impacted area?

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