The oak tree revisited

In the summer we helped host a couple of benefits for the tree that’s the subject of the below article, the first benefit rained out by hurricane Dennis.

I’d like to note first that the AJC reports that Atlanta is still the city of trees with a canopy that spreads “forever”. What they don’t state is that there has been such profound deforestation of Atlanta in the past thirty years that it is down to about 27 percent tree cover, which is not near the 40% it needs to maintain air quality. An image comparing canopy cover in 1993, 13 years ago, with that of 1972 is here..

Quattrochi found that Atlanta’s dramatic growth and extensive land cover change over the past few decades exacerbated the heat island effect. Landsat images of metropolitan Atlanta between 1973 and 1992 revealed that developers had cleared almost 380,000 acres of trees, replacing them with retail centers, roads, and about 270,000 acres of tract housing. Landsat data also revealed that an additional 180,000 acres of trees were cleared between 1993 and 1999.


560,000 acres of trees cleared in the Atlanta area between 1973 and 1999. That’s a lot of trees. One wonders how many more acres have been cleared since then.

City of trees?

Atlanta has an average tree cover of 27%, Boston has tree cover of 21.2, Austin 34%, Baltimore 31%, Milwaukee 18%, Chicago 11 percent, and New York City has 16.6 percent.


The battle for this oak tree has been a nasty one due to Cohen’s bullying, but with ultimately two unanimous votes ffrom the Tree Conservation Commission ruling against Cohen’s building plans.

Neighbors at odds over tree-cutting rules
Atlanta City Council considers relaxing rules, raising fears of tree lovers

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/27/06
Come spring, the first thing most people will notice when flying into Atlanta is the canopy of green that seems to spread forever.

This city of trees has long enforced a strict law designed to protect the dense growth from chain saws.

Now the City Council is considering pruning the law. Eleven of the 15 council members have signed onto legislation that would allow homeowners to chop down one tree of any kind and size each year.

The proposed change, expected to be taken up Tuesday at a council committee meeting, is creating fear among some property owners who say the city’s urban forest eventually will be leveled.

“The one-tree-a-year thing is nuts,” said Julian Bene, a neighborhood activist in Morningside who opposes changes to the ordinance. Since many parcels don’t have many trees, it wouldn’t take long to denude the city, Bene said. “I think it’s fairly obvious it will have a significantly negative effect.”

The trees are so beloved that one east Atlanta neighbor monitors a red oak via security camera to make sure it isn’t harmed by a developer who wants to build a house on the lot next door.

Others, however, say changes to what they call a draconian tree-cutting law are long overdue.

Earlier this month, the council limited civil penalties for chopping trees without permission and allowed landowners to cut down a variety of “exotic” species, such as Mimosas, Bradford Pears and Leyland cypresses.

Supporters say more changes are needed because of the difficulty and high cost of getting permits to remove diseased and other potentially harmful trees.

To cut down a tree, the city requires a $100 permit plus $30 per inch in diameter of the tree’s trunk. Until the law was amended earlier this month, the civil penalty was double for those who cut trees without permission, and quadruple for those who knowingly do so. Violators still face criminal penalties of up to $1,000 for each illegal cutting.

The permit fee goes into a fund for replanting trees on public property. Atlanta collected $1.9 million in fees last year.

Mayor Shirley Franklin said she’s not necessarily opposed to the one-tree-a-year proposal, but she said she is concerned about the burden of enforcing it to make sure people are sticking to the limit.

The legislation was introduced by Councilman Howard Shook of Buckhead. It eliminates the permit fee and allows cutting when permits would otherwise be impossible to obtain. Generally, only sick trees or those in the path of construction can be removed.

Shook said he believes people are capable of managing their own property yet are forced to beg city arborists for permission to chop down a tree. The arborists can be overruled, but Shook called the appellate panel — the citizen-staffed Tree Conservation Commission — a “kangaroo court” that runs roughshod over individual property rights.

“The naysayers say, ‘My God! This is going to lead to clear-cutting,’ ” Shook said. But tree-removal companies charge thousands of dollars, he said, and that cost “is going to be a natural brake on abuse.”

When views over tree-cutting clash, police sometimes have to intercede. That happened between developer Steve Cohen and neighbors when he confronted the old Southern red oak next door to property he owns.

Cohen has already built several homes in an up-and-coming neighborhood between Inman Park and Freedom Parkway. He said he wants to build one more home there to live in himself. But the city won’t approve Cohen’s building permit because an arborist claims construction would kill the 5-foot diameter red oak by tearing up too many of its roots.

“It’s a beautiful tree,” Cohen said. “I know that I can build there and save it.”

Cohen said he has spent at least $20,000 on consultant fees, permit application fees and interest payments during the yearlong battle to build on his land. He accused his neighbors of exploiting the law and their connections to get him arrested when he was trimming branches that overhang his parcel.

The neighbors, Tab Bottoms and his wife, Leigh Bielenberg, said they believe Cohen wants to kill the tree and build the largest house he can, then sell it and move on. They’ve documented their run-ins with him in a three-ring binder and with photos on poster boards. A security camera on the wall of their house is trained on the red oak so they can monitor it when they’re not around.

They said Cohen has bulldozed roots and cut off limbs. The red oak’s roots bulge through the fence that separates the two properties, and its branches overhang Cohen’s land.

They have a picture of a crew — dispatched by Cohen — with tree spikes and chain saws.

“If it gets sick and dies, we’ll have to pay to have it removed, and the lowest quote I’m getting to have it removed is $12,000,” Bottoms said. Bielenberg said she called police when she caught Cohen pouring something on the tree late one night. She told police he cursed at her and said the tree was “over.”

The city has sided with Bottoms and Bielenberg at nearly every turn. They credit the tree protection law with saving their 180-year-old oak.

“If it wasn’t for the ordinance, that tree would be history,” Bottoms said.

Shook, the councilman, said he began thinking about amending the law two years ago after a woman from southwest Atlanta was unable to get permission to cut a vine-covered oak that loomed over her house.

Gloria Cooper complained the tree dropped branches on her roof and its roots cracked her sidewalk and invaded her basement. “It was a huge tree that was damaging my basement,” said Cooper, now 76. She said she feared a storm would bring the tree crashing onto her house and eventually got help from Councilman C.T. Martin to get the tree taken down.

“When you’re paying your taxes, you should be able to do what you want to your yard,” said Cooper.

Shook’s legislation is expected to be discussed Tuesday at a meeting of the council’s development committee. The legislation could come up for a final vote before the full council on March 6.

The councilman said that with so many colleagues supporting his legislation, he’s confident it will pass. The only significant opposition has come from the city’s planning department, which would have to track every tree cut to make sure homeowners don’t take more than one a year.

The City Council asked planners to consider alternatives, which could be presented Tuesday.

Link to Memorial post for Leigh.

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

3 thoughts on “The oak tree revisited”

  1. Well, at least your Cohen character didn’t get out there with Velpar during the night like the crazy guy who poisoned a big, and famous, oak tree in Austin called the Treaty Oak, where allegedly Stephen F Austin signed a treaty with the Comanches (almost certainly not true) and where the Comanches and Tonkawas used to conduct diplomacy. People were mad as hell, and the perp was caught and got sent to prison for felony criminal mischief. Everybody expected the tree to die, but they dug up the poisoned dirt and established a sprinkler system, and the tree is alive (about 35 percent of the roots and leaf system survived) and has produced crops of acorns. Live oak seedlings from the Treaty Oak have considerable local cachet now. People wrote letters to the local paper calling for the would-be tree killer to be executed. I thought that was excessive, but it _was_ kind of an outrageous crime. Good luck in preserving that tree, and Atlanta’s forests.

  2. I looked up the Treaty Oak. Amazing that it survived the Velpar. Some people just seem to not like trees, like the landlord we used to have who chopped down the old cedars.

  3. In a totally contrary manner, we use oak trees to create furniture, flooring and doors.

    I was looking up info on oak history, and was fascinated by this tale.

    Some of our sales blurb includes interesting oak facts, one of which is that most items created from oak are made from trees 100 years or more old.

    Think of the history that many of these trees see… battles faught, species going extinct, wars, and of course treaties.

    Thanks for a fascinating read.

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