The streets of Atlanta are lined with towering oaks, poplars, pines, and white-blooming dogwoods, earning it the nickname the “City in a Forest.”
They’re the remainder of the dense woodland that covered the Appalachian foothills before the city emerged before the Civil War. Some date back 200 years, making them a point of civic pride.
But an urban renaissance that’s drawing new residents by the thousands means the trees are losing ground to a building boom. While Atlanta has a public goal of keeping 50 percent of its territory in the shade, things are growing in a different direction—and that’s alarming some of its residents.
On one recent muggy Saturday morning, about 50 people turned out in a leafy east side neighborhood to protest a developer’s plans to take down more than 200 trees. The 4-acre site was once part of a farm owned by John B. Gordon, a Confederate general whose statue still stands on the state Capitol grounds. More recently, it was home to a private school. But now, a builder wants to put up more than 40 new townhomes on the site.
Some of the trees slated for removal include oaks up to 4 feet across, according to City in the Forest, the group that organized the demonstration. Residents have appealed the company’s plans to the city Tree Commission, and City in the Forest was trying to rally people to support their appeal to save the trees.
“Our organization can hopefully get in there and say, ‘We don’t like this,’” group member Raenell Soller said. “There are things we can do to get in the way.”
Long notorious for suburban sprawl and traffic-choked freeways, Atlanta is turning over a new leaf. Since the 2010 census, the core of the ninth-largest U.S. metro area has added more than 50,000 people. City building permits jumped from about 6,900 in 2015 to more than 8,600 in 2017. Building permits on single-family residential lots—where most trees are found—grew from about 3,900 to just under 5,000 in the same period, according to figures from the Atlanta City Planning Department. Blocks of once-modest bungalows or industrial spaces are giving way to upscale apartment buildings, townhomes, or houses with bigger footprints than the ones they replaced—and bigger price tags.
Since 1993, a city ordinance has set rules and imposed fees for cutting down the trees that make the city so distinctive. It requires city approval and a size-based fee before cutting down a healthy tree wider than 6 inches. Planting a replacement can reduce the fee. Signs let neighbors know when trees are slated for removal, giving them a chance to appeal. Violations come with fines of $500 for a first offense, $1,000 for each one after that—and up to $60,000 an acre if city officials can’t determine how many were cut down illegally.
But the ordinance does a better job protecting trees from the whims of a property owner than from a builder’s plans, according to Kathryn Kolb, director of the conservation group EcoAddendum. While a developer needs to identify trees on a lot at the time the plan gets submitted, the city regularly signs off on projects that remove trees even in the setbacks along the edges of a lot, where the ordinance recommends they be retained.
And when a house is selling for $600,000 instead of $300,000, the fees under the tree ordinance sting a lot less: “They’ve simply become a cost of doing business,” she said. “Of course, we can’t save every tree. But we can do a lot better.”
Tony Giarrusso, the associate director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization, has been using satellite photos to track the city’s canopy since 2008—and his latest findings include some unsettling fine print.
Overall, the city’s tree cover declined by less than 1 percent between 2008 and 2014, leaving 47.1 percent of the city shaded. But by breaking down the city into a grid of 6-acre cells, Giarrusso found some patches of growth that raised red flags. He examined 720 of them on a computer and checked out dozens more in person where tree cover appeared to have grown in areas that seemed unlikely. And of those 102 sites, 50 of them turned out to harbor what he dubbed “false growth”—a hangover from the Great Recession.
“Something had been cleared in 2008 or before and it sat there, empty, and trees grew up,” Giarrusso told The Daily Beast. “That surprised us a lot, that it was so substantial.”
About 100 of the cells on Giarrusso’s map lost more than an acre of cover due to single-family home redevelopment. And when about 900 acres of “false growth” was factored out, Atlanta’s tree cover fell from nearly 48 percent in 2008 to about 45 percent by 2014, he said.
“The gap between high-quality canopy gain and overall loss is widening,” he said. While existing tree growth and new plantings offset some of the decline, “It’s not keeping up with the loss, and it can’t.”
Tim Keane, Atlanta’s planning commissioner, said he’s heard the criticism—and agrees with it. Right now, a project has already made it most of the way through the planning process before city arborists, who inspect trees and mark off those slated for removal, get involved.
“Nobody’s expecting the trees to be saved. They’re just expecting to have to write the check at the end,” Keane said. “If the arborist is involved at the beginning and they’re saying, ‘You’ve got to design around the trees,’ then they can totally reconfigure the way they work and save the trees.”
And the tree ordinance needs an update, Keane says. He’d like to see specific tree species protected—a move he said would have benefits for developers as well. They would be clear about what trees must be spared, but would save time on permitting.
“I think builders would prefer a more predictable and shorter process even if they have to work around and save the trees,” Keane said.
Builder Jim Brown said the kind of changes Keane talks about aren’t likely to pass without a fight.
“All builders know that trees add value to the house,” said Brown, a former president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association who has held seats on a neighborhood zoning board and the city Tree Commission. But he said, “I think when you start telling people how to design a house on a piece of land they own, that is really far-reaching of the government.”
“If you own a piece of land and you meet all the zoning regulations and you’re willing to put back trees, I think you should be able to build a house,” Brown said. He said it would be difficult to implement the kind of tighter rules Keane talks about “in a fair and equal way.”
“There could be scenarios where you couldn’t design anything that a person wanted to buy,” he said. “If somebody wants to build their house there, should they be allowed to build it if they meet all the zoning criteria.”
Brown suggested the city should focus more on replacing trees instead. Builders have struggled to find adequate places to plant trees to replace the ones they cut down, he said.
Keane said Atlanta is working on a wider revamp of the city’s environmental rules, commissioning plans for an “urban ecology framework” to encourage denser growth in the city’s center and major corridors leading out of it, while preserving and restoring the environment of the surrounding neighborhoods. Public meetings to get residents’ thoughts on the plan are scheduled to start in May, with the hope of getting a new law—a broader “nature ordinance,” not just a tree ordinance—through the City Council by the end of 2019.
“We’re not there. It will take a little while to get to that,” he said. “But that’s an outcome that’s necessary.”
But Amy Stout, who lives in the next neighborhood west of the demonstration, said further study isn’t needed: “Everybody knows our tree ordinance is weak.
“We need political action. We need the City Council and the Planning Department and the mayor to respond,” Stout said.