Above the Waterline: Make tree protection a climate priority

Courtesy Trees Atlanta

I’ve lived my entire life in the South and I know hot. I’ve learned (for the most part) to deal with the increasing number of high temperature days, thanks to air conditioning and the trees that shade my home and Intown neighborhood. But, I’m worried. It’s getting hotter every year; the average temperature in Atlanta rose nearly two degrees Fahrenheit from 1980 to 2015 and dangerous heat waves are expected in the future, as the worldwide climate continues to warm at an accelerating rate.

The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that, by mid-century, the days when the heat index in the city of Atlanta is above 100 degrees could increase annually from six to 46 and the days when it’s above 105 degrees could increase from one to 23! The heat index, which takes humidity into consideration, is the temperature that your body actually feels. While 2050 may seem like a distant date, it’s just 30 years away – the same period of time between 1990 (a year I remember well) and today.

Recently, I heard Dr. Brian Stone, director of Georgia Tech’s Urban Climate Lab, speak at The Carter Center. In summary, he told the filled room that Atlanta is warming at a rate three times faster than the planet; that the temperature in the city can be 15-20 degrees hotter than the suburbs; and that significant impacts are already being felt today, especially as we cut more trees, making the city hotter. In his words: “place is driving climate” with increasingly dangerous consequences.

Extreme heat is more deadly than any other weather-related hazard, on average causing more deaths annually in the U.S. than tornadoes, floods, or hurricanes. Between 60 and 70 people die in Atlanta every year from heat exposure, according to Stone, and that number is expected to double by 2050. Human health impacts are greatest for lower income households with limited resources to improve insulation and install and operate air conditioning systems. Young children, the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions who work outside are particularly vulnerable.

There is good news: a solution that enhances property values, reduces storm runoff and flooding, helps cleanse the air and supports affordable housing. We all know what it is – shade trees. Long known as “the city in a forest,” you might expect Atlanta to be a leader in encouraging, effectively regulating and, importantly, enforcing land use decisions that allow dense development, while protecting our tree canopy – a public asset of increasing value. Sadly, this is not the case.

Since its passage nearly 20 years ago, Atlanta’s tree protection ordinance has been beat on, beat up, revised and shrugged off by all the affected parties: developers, city planners, elected officials, residents, and tree protection and clean water advocates. Virtually everyone agrees that the ordinance has never worked to protect existing trees – our best trees – during development and redevelopment. Its backbone is a fee-based transactional tool charging for tree removal – simply a cost of doing business. An oak tree with a 30-inch diameter at chest height costs $1,000; there is no fee for trees considered “dead, dying or hazardous,” classifications used far too frequently.

Why can’t this ordinance be fixed, as our city grows hotter daily, endangering our health and quality of life? Why won’t the city transparently provide its tree-related data and study results? Why have ordinance re-writes been delayed and public meetings cancelled with no explanation from city planners, infuriating the people who have attended dozens of meetings over the years and submitted hundreds of comment letters? Their practical recommendations include: putting tree protection decisions at the beginning of the development process, not the end; saving the best trees (using a value matrix); reducing grading and impervious surfaces; and enforcing the law.

Meanwhile, chain saws, grading machinery and ever-larger building footprints continue to destroy the natural infrastructure that keeps our city cool. More than 48,000 healthy trees have been removed over the past six years, while the city only recently regained the same human population it had nearly 50 years ago. What will happen when Atlanta reaches the increases in population predicted?

City Councilman Matt Westmoreland, an Atlanta native, is chair of the Community Development and Human Services Committee, which oversees the work of the city’s planning department. As deadlines to produce a revised tree ordinance came and went last year, Matt became increasingly concerned. He says, “We have not done this process right. We’ve got one chance to protect our canopy.”

When I spoke with Matt recently, I asked if he thought the ordinance re-write process would continue to be kicked down the road. His immediate response: “Not on my watch.” He pointed to a list of 2020 goals and objectives adopted by his committee: the fourth goal of nine is protection of tree canopy; specifically, the committee expects to have a draft of a revised tree protection ordinance by the end of March, to be adopted by August. Importantly, an audit of the tree recompense (trust) fund is to be aligned with the ordinance adoption.

City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane, who has unfortunately made disparaging remarks about tree protection groups, said a few months ago: “This [process] will take as long as it takes. But, I’m less optimistic now.” Matt and several of his council colleagues have a different timeline and a different attitude. They understand the imperative, as the city prepares for a projected doubling in population by mid-century and temperatures continue to rise. Their goal: a workable tree protection program that actually saves trees, protects public health and enhances our economic security.

 

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown. 

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