FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — After a long and occasionally charged discussion May 6, the Forsyth County Commission approved updates to its tree ordinance that will affect mass-grading on new developments.
The changes will take effect in August as they county makes related changes to its unified development code.
After several meetings and a handful of updates to the county’s tree ordinance and soil erosion/sedimentation control ordinance, the commission focused on updates to new commercial, industrial or mixed-use developments at the meeting.
Based on suggestions from the local development community and economic groups like the Forsyth Chamber of Commerce, the board approved updates to the tree ordinance dealing with new, non-residential developments.
The move deleted previous suggestions that would have required a “specimen” tree survey on commercial or industrial properties, one that would aim to identify desirable trees to save on the site. That survey will now be required for residential developments. A required meeting between a developer and the county’s arborist prior to rezoning for commercial sites was also cut from the new requirements. However, the ordinance does require a post-development survey be conducted by county staff to ensure it conforms with the tree ordinance.
While several people representing development, real estate and commercial interests showed their support for the changes pertaining to non-residential sites, not everyone was on board.
Patrick Foster with Smart Growth of Forsyth County said he was ready to speak in favor of the tree ordinance back in December, when many of these economic and development groups chimed in with concerns the update was too stringent.
Foster said these suggestions resulted in a 6-month delay in approving the ordinance and eliminated many of the achievements made by stakeholders over 18 months prior to that meeting.
“The pre-zoning survey and arborist meeting are essential, because if they are not clearly identified on the site plan, it will result in clear-cutting of the site, which unfortunately is the standard procedure here in Forsyth County,” Foster said.
A few other residents spoke against the changes, with one woman stating the main goal of the tree ordinance update was to save trees, and the latest batch of updates calls that into question.
Commission Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills signed off on the updates, but she had some choice words for the Chamber and some within the local development community for coming forward with their opposition after months of meetings dealing with the tree ordinance.
Mills said she continuously hears from the Chamber that the county’s ordinances are too strict and could harm economic development after those ordinances have been approved or adjusted.
“We needed to hear this before we found out what was in the ordinance later,” Mills said. “You shouldn’t make us have to ask for it. You’re asking for dollars (from the county), you should be coming here and telling us what’s in [an ordinance], we shouldn’t be having to ask.”
Commissioner Alfred John agreed.
“We’re at the 11th hour and they come in, it’s the Atlanta Homebuilders Association, it’s Council for Quality Growth, and they throw grenades into this,” John said. “We want to hear from them from the beginning, not at the last minute. Because I’ll tell you, going forward, if they come in at the last minute and they start throwing grenades into a process we’ve worked hard towards, I’m going to be very unsympathetic to what they have to say. Come into that process early, contribute, and not at the very last minute.”
After discussing the tree ordinance, the board shifted its attention to a soil erosion and sedimentation control ordinance, specifically addressing mass-grading on new neighborhoods.
The latest batch of updates requires that no more than 20 acres of contiguous land can be mass-graded on any residential development of more than 25-acres. However, a variance can be granted to disturb up to 25-acres provided the developer can prove a hardship. A hardship would be considered for unusual topography or geology of the site that was unknown or “not subject to reasonable discovery” when the site was purchased or other situatio