Tree ordinance proposal draws barks from realtors

A bare majority of Macon City Council heard a first draft Tuesday of what’s likely to be a controversial proposal: a new tree ordinance for the city and Bibb County, regulating tree cover on private property.

Council President James Timley and members Lauren Benedict, Henry Gibson, Rick Hutto, Beverly K. Olson, Larry Schlesinger, Frank Tompkins and Nancy White came to the nonvoting work session at which Connie Head, consulting urban forester from Technical Forestry Services, presented her work. She was hired with a $25,000 grant to survey residents, businesspeople and public officials, and study the area’s tree needs. Her goal was to meet those needs --enhancing trees --with a minimum of regulation and at the lowest possible cost, she said.

Head said she checked temperatures outside Macon City Hall on Tuesday afternoon: the air temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but at asphalt level it was 28 degrees hotter in the sun than in the shade.

“That’s one of the reasons why this tree ordinance is being developed,” she said, as she sat beside Rob Apsley, chairman of the Macon Tree Commission.

For years Macon has only regulated trees on public land and in parking lots, Head said. In 2008 the city had only 37 percent tree cover -- and probably less now -- resulting in higher temperatures, more water runoff, worse air quality and higher cooling costs, she said.

The ordinance would establish the job of Macon-Bibb County arborist to review site plans, monitor compliance and educate people on tree care standards.

Any tree of more than 4 inches in diameter within a historic district, on public property, or on non-residential property; and any conserved or planted to meet specific tree canopy requirements, would be protected under the ordinance. A permit would be needed to cut any of them down.

“An approved tree canopy conservation plan and development permit shall serve as a tree removal permit,” according to a summary of the ordinance.

Such a conservation plan, approved by the arborist, would be needed for a development permit. Getting that reviewed would carry a fee of at least $500, returnable if developers include any “advanced parking lot design element,” such as permeable pavement.

New developments, wherever possible, would have to have at least 50 percent tree cover, including on the interior of parking lots. Newly-planted trees would be counted on the basis of their mature cover.

Where those standards are not met, people would pay into a Community Tree Bank to cover arborists’ costs and public tree planting.

Those provisions drew swift objection.

Olson described the requirement for a permit to cut down a tree on private property as “rather dictatorial.”

The ordinance was also opposed, at least in its current form, by several local real estate agents.

Ryan Griffin, a real estate agent and president of the Homebuilders Association of Middle Georgia, said they’d had a good conversation with Head and Apsley, but felt their concerns weren’t addressed.

“We’re not against trees. We’re against overly burdensome regulation,” he said.

The draft ordinance will get a public hearing, incorporate revisions from citizens and local officials, and come back for formal consideration within a few months, Head said.

Her ordinance summary sets an ultimate goal of 45 percent tree cover for Macon and 55 percent for Bibb County.

Jim Thomas, planning commission executive director, said the measure should really be presented to his agency, since it calls on planning and zoning staff for enforcement.

“What’s been drafted is actually a zoning code, not a city ordinance,” he said.

Port report

Lee Beckman from the Georgia Ports Authority gave council an overview of the Port of Savannah: it’s now the fourth-largest port in the country by volume, and still growing.

There are several projects under way to aid that traffic, but “the big project” is dredging the harbor, an effort that’s been studied since 1996 but has yet to begin, he said.

Savannah’s 42-foot harbor depth is less than any other major U.S. port, or any major port that ships to Savannah, Beckman said.

He asked Macon to endorse deepening the port; since much of the port’s traffic moves along the line of Interstate 16 through Macon, it will help attract jobs here, he said.

Beckman also asked for support of the local transportation local option sales tax, coming up for a vote July 31. The local T-SPLOST project list includes $54.4 million for improvements to Interstates 16 and 75.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.