The Dunwoody Planning Commission is recommending a change to the city’s tree ordinance that requires a $25 permit before trees on non-residential property not undergoing construction can be cut down.

Commissioners voted Aug. 8 to approve the amendment that also includes a fine of up to $1,000 per tree cut down without a permit.

The permit is required before cutting down a hardwood tree at breast height that measures 14 inches or more in diameter; “specimen” softwoods, such as pine trees, that measure 30 inches or more; and “specimen” understory trees that measure 6 inches or more. Specimen understory trees include dogwoods, sourwoods and crepe myrtles.

The permit is for trees located on “non-residential, mixed-use and multi-family zoned lots,” the ordinance states. It does not apply to residential property.

The ordinance amendment now goes to the City Council for final consideration.

A memo to the Planning Commission from Planning Manager John Olson said the idea for an amendment was brought into focus after representatives from Perimeter Mall approached the city earlier this year about wanting to cut down 69 specimen understory trees along the Ashford-Dunwoody Road side of the mall.

In an interview, Community Development Director Richard McLeod, who came on board with the city in June, said the mall approached the city before he was hired, but that he understood that the mall wanted to remove trees that are 30 to 40 years old because they were blocking the view of the mall.

“We warned them there would be heck to pay” if they did so, McLeod said.

The mall eventually decided not to remove the trees.

“They did not and we won’t let them,” he said.

A call to mall management seeking comment was not returned.

The mall request shined a light on a loophole in the ordinance. The mall managers could have cut down the 69 trees without a permit because the tree removal was unrelated to any kind of construction permits.

“They could have cut them down … but essentially they came to their senses because they knew they would have a black eye if they did so,” McLeod said.

Olson also noted in his memo to commissioners that tree removal companies have taken advantage of the fact that Dunwoody does not have a process for tree removal other than during construction projects.

“As a result, large trees have been targeted by tree companies after big storms,” Olson stated. “And unfortunately, otherwise savable trees with only minor storm damage have been removed.”

The tree ordinance amendment is meant to “reign in the needless removal of trees” outside of construction, Olson added.

“Numerous residents and businesses within the city of Dunwoody have reached out to staff, often weekly, to express their concern when seeing trees being removed and ask for direction with their own trees. However, many are shocked when they learn that our ordinance does not speak to the removal of trees outside of the construction process,” Olson said.

The proposed permit and review process would allow the city to review trees that are “valuable to the community as a whole,” he wrote in the memo.

The ordinance amendment also indicates the city’s commitment to preserving the tree canopy in Dunwoody, city spokesperson Bob Mullen said.

“We want to take this step to ensure trees are not cut down without the city’s knowledge,” he said.

The city’s tree canopy was last assessed in 2011, Mullen said, and shows that Dunwoody is located on approximately 8,500 acres of land composed of heavily wooded parkland areas surrounded by moderately wooded residential areas with lightly to moderately wooded commercial locations.

Satellite images used for the tree canopy assessment six years ago show that of the 8,500 acres, there are approximately 2,631 acres, or 31 percent, of land with little or no canopy, Mullen said. This land includes places like Perimeter Mall, the DeKalb water treatment plan and residential areas heavily impacted by a 1998 tornado.

The assessment further states that of the remaining 69 percent of land, about 50 percent is covered by tree canopy and 19 percent by impervious surfaces.

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