For better or worse, law protecting trees will change 

Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood wants to tinker with Atlanta's controversial tree ordinance in hopes of getting it right this time.

The ordinance, a stringent set of rules that regulates which and how many trees can be cut down by developers and homeowners, has been amended four times since it passed in 1993. It's viewed both as an aggressive protector of the environment and a bureaucratic hassle.

Citing illegal, nighttime clear-cutting and high fines for homeowners, Norwood has created a task force composed mostly of Atlanta tree commission members and developers to rewrite parts of the ordinance. But local tree experts, including Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission Chairwoman Jackie Echols, worry that rewriting the ordinance could lead to its gutting.

Echols is worried the group will decide to reduce tree-cutting fees for developers and homeowners, making it easier to cut trees down. She says changes also could result in less money for planting replacement trees. What's more, Norwood hasn't given the task force enough time, according to Echols. It took City Council more than a year to amend the ordinance in 2002.

"Two months is not enough time to thoroughly review and revise sections that need revision," Echols says. "Thus far, the rewrite process is void of any methodical, rational or workable plan for addressing the shortfalls of the ordinance.

"We will end up with a botched job and a worse ordinance."

Yet the general consensus is that the current tree ordinance is flawed. Homeowners have to endure months of red tape to get a permit to remove diseased and dangerous trees. And people who unknowingly break the city's tree laws face fines that can run into the thousands of dollars.

Norwood wants to fix those problems, and says the ordinance needs to be adjusted so that low-income residents aren't forced to pay a prohibitive amount in fines. "I am for preserving the tree canopy," she says, "and I'm also for making sure homeowners rights are protected in the city of Atlanta."

The task force is scheduled to meet at 11:30 a.m. in City Hall Committee Room 2 on Sept. 8, Sept. 22, Oct. 6, and Oct. 20. The group is expected to submit its recommended changes to City Hall by Oct. 31.

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