Tree Protection Ordinance work likely postponed to 2022

Will 2022 finally bring a new City Tree Protection Ordinance? That’s the question as it appears 2021 will pass as another year without it as a rewrite process drags on amid pushback from activists in Buckhead and other neighborhoods.

Talk of trying to hammer out a last-minute version in a special-called City Council meeting on Dec. 20 has ended, according to Councilmember Matt Westmoreland, leaving the work to the newly elected council that takes office in January. The tree ordinance remains on the agenda for that meeting, but Westmoreland said it is likely to be “filed,” meaning it will be killed.

“There were several council members who wanted to see if we could do something before the end of the term, but we’ve decided to work on it in 2022,” said Westmoreland, who holds the citywide Post 2 at-large seat and was reelected last month.

The council also resisted calls from some advocates to separately revise the policy for recompense fees paid by those who cut down certain trees. Westmoreland said that fee will be reviewed as part of the overall tree ordinance.

“We should not have to wait on an entirely new tree ordinance to get the recompense fee updated,” said deLille Anthony, a Buckhead resident who founded the advocacy organization Tree Next Door and has led the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods’ tree canopy committee. “That should be something that is routinely updated in the tree ordinance to reflect current market conditions.”

The tree ordinance addresses when and how property owners can remove trees. Attempts to revise or rewrite it have gone for several years amid concerns of developers clear-cutting lots. The current effort has moved in fits and starts since 2019, with pauses for the COVID-19 pandemic and opposition to many provisions by various advocacy groups.

Tree-loss concerns also informed part of the resistance in Buckhead and some other neighborhoods to the City’s controversial proposals to allow some density increases in single-family-zoned neighborhoods as a method of boosting housing affordability and equity. Those proposals consumed much City planning attention over the course of 2021.

Besides the Department of City Planning’s draft ordinance, a groups called City in the Forest is also circulating its “Citizens Blended Draft” with amendments it considers better. Westmoreland and District 6 Councilmember Jennifer Ide reportedly have been working on a substitute ordinance that would reconcile those drafts to some degree, but it has not been released.

Heading in 2022, another X factor in tree ordinance discussions is the Buckhead cityhood movement, which could draw away political tension or make tree protection part of that debate, among other possibilities.