Controversy grows with proposed Macon-Bibb tree ordinance

The idea sounds simple enough: Increase the tree canopy over Macon and Bibb County.

But a proposed strategy to replace lost trees is turning into a fight between people who support the idea of more trees and developers who worry new rules might harm their businesses.

Two years ago, the city was awarded a $25,000 Knight Neighborhood Challenge Grant to study the problem of the city’s declining tree population and come up with a replacement strategy.

In recent weeks, business leaders and some elected officials have questioned whether the government should regulate the addition and removal of trees.

Builders, developers and real estate agents contend that adding permit fees related to removing trees on a property penalizes businesses trying to build subdivisions and shopping centers.

They said they’re concerned about permit costs, tree planting regulations and the additional cost of hiring an arborist.

“To do it at this particular time, when home building and commercial and residential home building are in the worst economy I’ve ever seen, (is wrong),” said Tim D. Thornton, president of Thornton Realty & Development. “The industry is still suffering. We’re trying to get things back on track, and this is like a kick in the teeth while we’re still down in the ditch.”

At a Bibb County Commission committee meeting last week, Thornton -- president of the Middle Georgia Association of Realtors and immediate past president of the Homebuilders Association of Middle Georgia -- attended with several other local real estate agents and home builders to voice concerns about a tree ordinance still in a draft stage.

Connie Head, an urban forester hired with the Knight grant to consult with the volunteer Macon Tree Commission, said the proposed ordinance isn’t meant to be punitive. Rather, it’s designed to address a serious problem the city and county face.

Declining canopy

Ideally, an area of Macon and Bibb County’s size should have at least a 40 percent tree canopy. Based on University of Georgia studies conducted in 2008 before the Mother’s Day storms, the tree canopy was at 37 percent in Macon and 48 percent in unincorporated Bibb County. Overall, the city and county combined have a 46 percent canopy, but that number has been declining each year, Head said.

The Macon and Bibb County canopy was dramatically altered after the Mother’s Day storms in 2008. Foresters estimated between 25 and 40 percent of the tree canopy was damaged -- thousands of old shade trees, pines and more.

“With economic development slowing down, it’s time to look at this,” she said. “Trees are a way to bring people to the community. The more trees, the higher the property values and greater the occupancy rates (of houses and apartments).”

Heather Bowman Cutway, an assistant professor of biology at Mercer University and chairwoman of the Macon Tree Commission, said there are lots of misconceptions and misunderstandings about the proposal.

For example, she noted that opponents are concerned that property owners will need permission to remove trees from their own lots. But that’s not the case, Bowman Cutway said.

An existing ordinance that covers Macon’s historic districts already requires owners to get permission to cut down trees from the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission, she said. But the proposed ordinance, which is still being revised, doesn’t carry the same requirement. Only developers clearing lots that contain several trees would need to get permits to do so.

Those developers would have to pay a proposed permit cost of $500 to remove trees to develop a property. The money, she said, would be used to hire an arborist to enforce the ordinance countywide. That arborist would work for P&Z as a full-time, part-time or contract position.

During Tuesday’s Bibb County meeting, Commissioner Elmo Richardson complained that when he spoke to the county’s engineering department about the ordinance, employees told him their suggestions for the ordinance hadn’t been incorporated.

Head and Cutway said they are meeting with relevant stakeholders in the community -- including city and county officials, business owners, builders and residents -- and that the tree commission will incorporate many of the suggested changes.

Cutway said the revised proposal will then be discussed further in public meetings before it’s submitted to P&Z for approval.

“We want to have more public meetings,” she said. “We’re still educating people about what’s in the ordinance.”

Government involvement?

Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, who also questioned parts of the ordinance last week, said he thinks the tree ordinance may be an overreach.

“I think (the tree ordinance) is another impediment to economic development,” he said. “People don’t like dealing with P&Z. I think I’m uncomfortable having someone come in and enforce (regulations such as) the depth of how a tree is planted. My doubt is the wisdom of having the government intrude. If (the ordinance) incentivized it and people chose to (plant trees) themselves, that’s one thing.”

P&Z Executive Director Jim Thomas said he and his board are scheduled to hear about the proposal Monday. Thomas said he hasn’t finished reading the draft yet, but he admits the P&Z board and staff are already facing pressure from the business community.

“It’s a long way off from adoption, but we’ve already gotten several calls about it from home builders,” Thomas said. “P&Z tried to adopt a tree ordinance (several) years ago, and we got really hammered on it. We ended up adopting voluntary guidelines instead. It’s the same issues with this. We know there’s an economic recession. ... From a professional standpoint, we need to do a better job to make sure at least part of the tree canopy gets replaced.”

Head noted during her presentation to Bibb commissioners that Macon is the largest city in Georgia without a public/private tree ordinance. About 120 Georgia communities have one.

Cutway said having a strong tree canopy has practical benefits for a community in addition to aesthetic ones.

More trees lead to better air quality, energy savings and a reduction in storm water runoff, she said.

“I think the community really does support trees,” she said. “When the College Hill Corridor Commission was putting together the master plan, the No. 1 recommendation -- by the residents, not by the people putting the plan together -- was planting more trees. It speaks to the value people put on trees.”

Problems for developers

Thornton said he personally supports more trees, as do many involved in the real estate and building industries -- but not if it leads to increased business costs.

There have been few brand-new developments starting in Bibb County since the recession began in 2008, he said. More trees were lost in the Mother’s Day storms that year than were lost from development, he said.

“Having trees on a property -- conceptually, we’re OK with that,” he said. “But many times when I put in trees, here comes Georgia Power two months later clearing them to put in a trench. Or here comes the homeowner who wants to clear a tree out of his backyard. I spent $1,000 to move a sewer to save a tree once, and the owner ended up cutting it down anyway. ... Do I need the government to tell me how to market my subdivision and property?”

Head acknowledged the Mother’s Day storms and subsequent storms during the past five years hugely impacted the canopy. But she also said many property developers don’t put forth the effort to preserve existing trees or plant new ones properly.

“The problem is, trees are being planted in poor soil or are being neglected,” she said. “We’ve lost a lot of the trees that have been planted in the last 15 years, which is just wasting the developers’ money. The developers don’t benefit, the community doesn’t benefit and shoppers don’t benefit.”

Ultimately, if Macon wants a strong tree canopy, the effort must begin now, said Head, whose ultimate goal is to see a 45 percent tree cover for the city and a 55 percent tree cover for the county.

“There’s a need for this (ordinance),” Head said. “Macon and Bibb County really do need to have a healthy tree canopy. We need to make the commitment now in order to ensure it for the future.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.