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Amid building boom, Atlanta’s tree-killing ways take a national stage

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The Daily Beast delves deep in the latest examination of ATL canopy decimation

A photo of Atlanta’s tree canopy, as seen from Sandy Springs.
Atlanta’s tree canopy, as seen from Sandy Springs.
City Data

The tug-of-war between gangbusters development and Atlanta’s famously lush canopy is longstanding, complex, and more pervasive now than ever.

Anecdotally, high-profile flareups in recent years have come with a “tree massacre” at Buckhead’s Memorial Park, the death of 600 trees for senior living in Peachtree Hills, and the heated homebuilder-vs.-activist squabble over ancient trees in Kirkwood, where a subdivision called Oak Park now stands.

As Atlanta began crawling from the Great Recession, publications such as the New York Times took notice of the tension—as evidenced by 2011 coverage titled, “Atlanta Finds Its Identity as Tree Haven Is Threatened”—and city leaders have since taken steps (some would argue ineffectively) to preserve the city’s treasured greenery as development reaches overdrive.

The City (still) in a Forest, from Stone Mountain.
Curbed Atlanta

To wit: The Atlanta City Council in 2016 passed an ordinance allowing the city to purchase forested acres strictly for preservation, and around that same time, Planning Commissioner Tim Keane began efforts to overhaul regulations governing how developers cut down trees and what fines they must pay.

This week, the saga playing out in our City in a Forest again took the national stage on The Daily Beast, an online magazine largely focused on politics and pop culture.

In its “Atlanta’s Building Boom Is Destroying Its Famous Forests” dispatch, the Daily Beast covers the community activism angle, the history of developer fees for axing trees wider than 6 inches, and the seismic growth within the sliver of city limits (50,000 new residents since 2010, with building permits skyrocketing).

The story then taps Tony Giarrusso, the associate director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization, for new insights that provide compelling food for thought.

Giarrusso found that Atlanta’s tree cover had dipped 3 percent, much more than previously thought, between just 2008 and 2014 once “false growth”—or trees that had sprouted on sites cleared during the recession, then abandoned, resulting in non-quality canopy gain—was factored out.

The city’s actual tree cover, the prof contends, was about 45 percent by 2014, and logic says it’s less now. Hardly a desert, but Atlanta was substantially closer to being half-covered by trees as recently as 2008.

Keane weighs in, too, discussing still-needed updates to the tree ordinance and his distaste for Atlanta developers’ cut-now, pay-later approach. Input by city arborists is needed at the beginning of development phases, he says, not when the planning process has virtually concluded, as is the case now.

That change, Keane told The Daily Beast, could force homebuilders and project developers to design around certain trees, but it could also save time on permitting.

Not so fast, former Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association president Jim Brown told the site. He contends that builders know trees add value to their products—and that forcing them to design a certain way on land they own would be government overreach.

And thus, the saga continues.