Trees unintended victims of sewer project

One of the nasty side effects of Mayor Shirley Franklin's $3.2 billion plan to overhaul the city's aging sewage infrastructure is its impact on Atlanta's trees.

Most of the time, work crews can lay sewer pipes under streets or sidewalks. But occasionally, sewage lines must veer off the asphalt, forcing crews onto land covered by towering pines, poplars, sycamores and oaks.

What's more, the massive scope of the sewer project — more than 100 miles of pipe will be replaced or repaired — has some intown residents worried that the city is cutting corners on some of its own tree-protection programs.

"I feel that so much work is being done that workers [and city officials] have forgotten about protecting these magnificent trees that make up the character of these old neighborhoods," says Alice Nisbet, a local artist who was drawn into a tree protection battle last week.

City subcontractors attempted to cut down two mammoth hardwoods — a tulip poplar and a sycamore — at the end of Ormewood Park's Vera Street, where Nisbet lives, without obtaining the necessary permits from the city.

Under most circumstances, city code requires that trees whose roots are in the way of a sewer line be marked with spray paint and that a bright yellow notice be displayed for a minimum of 15 days. The city's Department of Watershed Management communications division is supposed to mail notices to residents in the vicinity of the trees as well. The notices explain the right to appeal the decision to chop down a tree to the city's arborist and, ultimately, the tree commission.

On Jan. 3, however, Vera Street residents learned for the first time that the two large trees at the end of their street would be cut down the next morning.

That night, Nisbet, fearing that the crews weren't following proper procedure, nailed fake notices to the trees stating, "These trees are not to be removed by order of the city arborists."

Nisbet regularly photographs tree-cutting crews whom she claims are working without permits.

"I slept very badly that night," she says, "because I knew I'd have to get up and confront them in the morning if they showed up."

But the crew didn't show up the following morning, or the next. Two days after Nisbet installed her fake stop-work order, Atlanta arborist Tom Coffin posted a real one. Also on display was the city's bright yellow tree-cutting notice.

Janet Ward, spokeswoman for Watershed Management, says, "We are actually trying to figure out a way to reroute the sewer where they don't have to cut down those two trees."

Both Nesbit and Councilwoman Carla Smith, who represents the area, say they will closely follow the sewer work and its impact on local trees. Though the city must replace trees of a certain size (hardwoods larger than 6 inches in diameter and pines larger than 12), only those trees that are documented in the official permitting process actually are replaced.

"I'm just worried about the natural environment," Nisbet says. "Especially since there's so much development in this area."

GET INVOLVED: For more information on the city's ongoing sewer project, go to www.cleanwateratlanta.org.

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