Atlanta – Fighting Threats

In 1977, city officials crafted an ordinance requiring developers to either replace the trees they remove or pay into a compensation fund, which is used by the city to support tree planting efforts. This ordinance was amended in 1995, 2001 and 2002 to reflect the faster pace of development over the last two decades and to broaden the protection of the city’s trees.[1]

The current iteration of the ordinance requires that anyone wanting to remove, destroy or injure any tree on city-owned property or any tree greater than six inches in diameter on private property, including diseased or dead ones, must apply for a permit from the city arborist. Anyone who injures or removes a tree without a permit can be fined.[2] The ordinance does allow for the removal of trees for construction projects, such as new homes, new buildings, streets and infrastructure, but those plans must be submitted to the Department of Planning and Community Development’s Arborist Division, which handles private trees, or the Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs, which administers public trees, for review. The tree ordinance requires that developers receive a permit and must minimize the impact on the trees on the site. When a developer does remove a tree, the company must plant a replacement tree elsewhere, pay compensation or both. Compensation fees are paid into a Tree Trust Fund, which is used for planting and maintaining trees in the city.[3]

The ordinance has been remarkably effective in stemming the net loss of the city’s tree canopy, says Doug Voss, the city of Atlanta’s director of Parks. “Our tree ordinance is very progressive,” he says. “Atlanta is constantly growing and expanding, so we lose quite a few trees. However, the city of Atlanta’s tree protection ordinance requires that any trees removed from public lands be replaced on a caliper to caliper basis. For trees removed from private lands, the ordinance requires the developer to either replace the caliper inches lost or pay into a recompense fund to plant additional trees within the city.”

Midtown Atlanta. Credit: Sinan

The tree protection ordinance also spawned the Tree Conservation Commission, a citizen board whose mission is to assist in the protection, maintenance and regeneration of trees and other forest resources in Atlanta. The Commission, comprised of 15 participants, eight of which are appointed by the mayor and seven by the City Council, hears and decides appeals of permit decisions. Each member is required to have specialized knowledge of trees, the tree protection ordinance or the impact of construction activities on trees. The commission also oversees educational and other programs to encourage proper management of trees.[4]

With the ordinance helping protect Atlanta’s canopy from development, the city’s urban forest advocates are looking for ways to keep the canopy healthy in the midst of a multi-year drought.

“The drought is a very big problem for our trees,” says Greg Levine, co-executive director and chief program officer of the nonprofit Trees Atlanta. “It’s really challenging when you’re planting a lot of new trees and many are showing signs of weakness. The goal is to have them do more than just survive. We want our trees to thrive, so we have to follow up with a lot of care.” To help the city’s trees survive the drought, Trees Atlanta has hired crews to water the trees they’ve planted. “It’s definitely a financial burden,” he says. “But we’re finding that with rainstorms breaking up before they get to the city, and with the heat island [effect], trees just don’t get enough water.”

Compounding this issue is that no one knows for sure how much of the city is forested. Unlike several other cities, Atlanta has not calculated what percentage of the city its tree canopy covers. The city recently conducted the first comprehensive inventory of downtown Atlanta’s publicly owned trees. The analysis, which includes trees along streets, boulevards, parks and public spaces in a four-square-mile area, will provide information about the species, size, quality and condition of public trees in downtown Atlanta. The inventory will result in a report on the overall condition of the trees and recommendations on locations that have enough space for future tree planting.[5] Voss relates how important this research is in helping identify the location of the city’s trees. “Atlanta has a pretty vibrant tree canopy, but we don’t know yet how much is on public land and how much is on private,” he says.


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[1] State of Georgia. Department of Community Affairs. Planning and Environmental Management. Georgia Examples. (accessed Sept. 27, 2012).

[2] Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission. Tree Ordinance. Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance: The Basics. (accessed Sept. 27, 2012).

[3] Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission. FAQs. (accessed Sept. 27, 2012).

[4] Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission. Tree Conservation Commission Members. (accessed Sept. 27, 2012).

[5] Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission. News. The City of Atlanta Initiates First Comprehensive Downtown Public Tree Inventory. (accessed Sept. 27, 2012).