On a day last October, the property at the northwest corner of DeKalb and Gordon avenues in Lake Claire was transformed from a lush, wooded grove into an empty lot. In a matter of hours, nearly every tree that stood there, including a grand old pecan tree lovingly known as Granmaw Gordon, was felled to make way for condos.
Adding insult to injury for the stricken neighbors, however, was the perception that the tree-clearing was done with the blessing of the city's Arborist Division and the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission, a citizen board tasked in part with protecting trees from rapacious developers.
Nearly eight months later, Lake Claire resident Teri Stewart, whose home sits across the street from the lot, still has as clear a view of busy DeKalb Avenue as she did that October day. The planned townhomes were never built and the building permit that allowed for the lot to be cleared expired in late April, following six months of inactivity.
For several years, Stewart and her neighbors fought an expensive legal battle against the property owner's efforts to clear the wooded lot. Looking back, Stewart feels she and her neighbors were thwarted by the very mechanisms put in place to protect the trees.
"They cleared that lot to send a message," she says. "Unscrupulous developers control the city of Atlanta, the police, neighborhoods and our environment."
The Lake Claire residents haven't been the only ones to raise questions about the efficacy of the city's arborist division. The Tree Next Door, a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting Atlanta's tree canopy, earlier this week submitted a report to the City Council and to Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman indicating that the city's three arborists are doing essentially the workload of one. Also troubling: They're being paid from the city's tree trust fund, a repository that's supposed to be used to replant removed trees as well as plant new ones.
Although it was always privately owned, Stewart says the property had effectively served as a neighborhood greenspace for decades.
The fight to protect the trees and save Granmaw Gordon began when the land was purchased by Adam Gaslowitz, a local attorney who said he planned to build a 10-townhome complex on the site. Led by Stewart, a handful of neighbors immediately attempted to block his efforts to secure the necessary permits to clear the lot arguing that the property qualified as a habitat to wildlife species protected under state and federal law. Aided with funding from Park Pride, the neighbors hired a lawyer and, at one point, even offered to buy the land, but Stewart says Gaslowitz asked for twice what the property was worth.
When the city arborist and the Tree Conservation Commission gave their approval for Gaslowitz to remove the trees in January of 2010, Stewart filed to have an appeal heard in Fulton Superior Court. At the July hearing, the plaintiffs argued that the city's approval was based on a tree plan that was both incorrect and incomplete; that Gaslowitz had yet to secure a building permit; and that the Commission is required to ensure that state and federal wildlife protection laws are followed.
In the end, the arguments didn't matter. Ruling on Oct. 25, Judge Constance Russell dismissed the case on a technicality: Stewart's initial filing had been signed by an administrator rather than a member of the tree Commission, as required by law — even though the city had directed Stewart's attorney to have it signed by the administrator.
Stewart assumed she had the usual 30 days to appeal the dismissal, and immediately informed the Commission both verbally and in writing that she planned to do so.
But emails sent between the city attorney's office, the arborists office and the Tree Commission indicate that the permitting process was set into motion the very day Russell issued her decision.
At 1:05 p.m. on Oct. 25, Senior Assistant City Attorney Laura Sauriol told Senior Arborist Frank Mobley to "hang tight" on giving final approval on Gaslowitz's tree-removal permit. "They can ask the Court of Appeals to hear it, but have 30 days to do so," she wrote. "We will have to wait till then at least unless Petitioner tells me they are NOT seeking additional review."
By 2:42 p.m., however — and despite receiving an email indicating that Stewart wished to appeal — Sauriol had changed her tune. She told Mobley in an email: "The permitting process can now continue since the court dismissed Ms. Stewart's petition. I apologize for any confusion from my earlier email." By that Friday, Oct. 29, the permits had been issued.
The next morning, as about 50 neighbors and environmental activists looked on, the trees were cut down.
As chairman of the Tree Next Door, Shel Schlegman is familiar with the fight to save Granmaw Gordon and the other trees on the Gordon Avenue property. His group's stated goal is to protect Atlanta's tree canopy by ensuring that the city's tree protection ordinance — which they say is quite strong — is actually enforced. Part of that mission has been keeping an eye on the city's Arborist Division. The secretary of the Tree Next Door is Tom Coffin, the city's former senior arborist who was unceremoniously removed from his post in 2008 when he blew the whistle on fellow field arborists who allegedly weren't adequately enforcing the Tree Protection ordinance. Coffin sued the city and won a settlement for back pay and pension benefits. Schlegman, for his part, had been appointed as the first chairman of the Tree Conservation Commission by then-Mayor Bill Campbell.
The Tree Next Door reviewed the daily field activities of the city's three current field arborists and determined that in the first quarter of this year they handled what would be a "reasonable workload" for a single arborist, each performing an average of just 4.5 inspections a day.
As for enforcement of the tree ordinance, during the first quarter the Tree Next Door says city records indicate the arborists had a total of just three enforcement activities between them — one stop work order and two recompense demands for improper tree removal. No citations were issued.
Schlegman doesn't mince words: "They are doing a very bad job."
Worse, they're being paid from the city's tree trust fund. "[The fund] was created to replant trees when they get cut down and people can't afford to replant, and for park and street trees; the other five percent is to be used for education," Schlegman explains. But when the economy hit the skids, the City Council voted to allow the arborists' salaries to come out of the fund as well.
In a recent email to Schlegman, city COO Aman explained: "Certainly, if those individuals that remain do not do a satisfactory job they can and will be replaced."
The forest on Gordon Avenue that became a barren field last October is now more like a meadow, with native flowers and berry bushes growing wild. And, as Stewart points out as she makes her way around the property's periphery, several pecan saplings have sprouted up that bear leaves that look distinctly like Granmaw Gordon's. It's an improvement, but it may or may not last. Property owner Gaslowitz told CL he still has every intention of building townhomes on the site.