MILTON, Ga. — Nearly two years have passed since the city adopted an updated tree ordinance, but some of the regulations remain up in the air.

Talks on changes to the regulations continued Jan. 13 with a joint meeting between the Milton City Council and the city’s Planning Commission. 

At the heart of the issue is balancing tree preservation without creating an overwhelming burden on developers or homeowners. 

After months of talks between the city’s tree stakeholder committee and the Planning Commission, a new draft of the ordinance is close to carrying out that objective, city officials say.

“The ordinance does a great job in balancing the city’s dual objectives of preserving the tree canopy with understanding that open fields, pastures and agriculture setting are also critical in maintaining Milton’s small-town quality of life,” Community Development Director Parag Agrawal said. 

Following recent discussions, the city’s representatives were presented with additional updates at last week’s meeting. 

One change is the removal of regulations that would have restricted the creation of large, open yards. The update also gives homeowners some leeway when they want to cut down a tree on their property, allowing the city’s arborist to render judgment on whether recompense will be required. 

“The tree canopy ordinance really limited a homeowner’s ability to take down trees,” City Arborist Sandra Dewitt said. “You could only take down a tree if it was dead, dying or hazardous, and really no other reason. So, we wanted to give more discretion to the city arborist in that respect.” 

The regulations will also prevent clearcutting. New language has been added that requires at least one-third of a site’s tree canopy coverage must come from existing trees on the site. 

Most homes within the city fall under AG-1 zoning, which will now require 57 percent tree canopy coverage, down from 60 percent originally required in the document. Coverage is calculated by the total size of the canopy for all trees on a property when each tree reaches full maturity

Lowering the coverage figure was more in line with the current canopy coverage of the city, Dewitt said, and Milton did not want to burden homeowners by requiring they add to their property’s canopy. 

The updates also raise the requirement from 20 to 30 percent required canopy coverage on business properties.   

To incentivize larger lots, any undeveloped residential property over 3 acres would have no minimum canopy size, only that the current canopy be maintained

Homeowners wishing to remove trees from their property will be required to pay an application fee, $25 per tree, and could have to pay into the city’s tree fund depending on the situation. For dead trees, there would be no fee and the homeowner would not be required to plant additional trees to make up for the lost canopy coverage. 

Representatives balked at the $25 application fee, but City Manager Steve Krokoff said it is a policy decision, and the City Council could change the requirement. 

For removing healthy trees, a property owner would be required to maintain the minimum canopy coverage based on the site’s zoning. For instance, an AG-1 home that has an existing canopy of 81 percent would not be required to pay tree recompense if the site remained above the 57 percent coverage minimum after  removal of the trees. 

When cutting down a tree puts the site under the minimum canopy, property owners will be required to plant trees to make up for the lost coverage. Another alternative would be to plant two-thirds of the canopy and pay the remaining one-third into the city’s tree fund.

Property owners could plant any combination of trees for recompense, and the trees can be planted anywhere on their property. 

Milton would require more recompense for the removal of heritage trees, which are either 75 years or older or have been designated as significant by state forestry commissions, which are obtained by the property owner. However, Krokoff said no heritage trees are located in the city, and representatives argued that most homeowners would likely not want to create an added burden on their property by seeking heritage tree designation. 

Those seeking waivers from the regulations can present their case to the Planning Commission on a quarterly basis under terms of the updated ordinance

Krokoff said the adoption of the updates is still a few months down the road with the city still requiring more “wordsmithing” and a legal review of the ordinance. 

Once the regulation is passed, many representatives said informing the public will be vital so property owners are aware of the rules before they cut down any trees.

Councilwoman Laura Bentley said the city should also inform tree companies about the updates because most property owners do not remove large trees on their own. Councilman Rick Mohrig suggested also informing neighborhood HOAs

The Jan. 13 discussion comes a few weeks after the city elected to extend the option for developers to either use the city’s tree ordinance adopted in February, 2018, or the prior regulations. 

The difference between the two sets of regulations is how tree density is measured. In the original ordinance, density was measured by the circumference of trees on a site, but Dewitt said this practice is “outdated” and stems from forestry regulations. 

The updated ordinance, which is still being fine-tuned, bases tree density by canopy coverage once a tree reaches full maturity. 

When the new regulations passed, it was met with criticisms from some developers who argued it was too stringent. Around six months after the ordinance was adopted, the city began permitting developers to choose which set of regulations to follow. Since then, the city has continued to extend the option to developers.

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