How can you properly appeal a tree removal permit application filed with the city of Atlanta without having the one piece of information needed to make that decision?
That’s the question Buckhead resident Dan Weede is asking after his appeal required three weeks, a bevy of emails to the city arborist — Arboricultural Manager David Zaparanick — and other Atlanta representatives and $122 in fees, including filing a Georgia Open Records Act request that cost $47.
Weede, a real estate lawyer, is also a watchdog for Mountain Way Common, a park located near his home in Buckhead, since he is board vice president of the Friends of Mountain Way, a nonprofit devoted to protecting the 0.95-acre greenspace. Evan Hardin, who owns the 0.8-acre property at 680 Mountain Way, next to the park, filed a tree removal permit March 12.
Hardin was fined $52,770 by the city in 2011 for removing too many trees from his land, though he blamed his next-door neighbor, Jayu Momaya, who was having a house built on his property and was fined $41,000 himself for excess tree removal, according to a media report. So Weede filed the appeal March 13 to make sure the permit was on the up and up.
The city uses a software program called Accela to post online documents about building and tree removal permits and other information such as code enforcement complaints, so the public can view them.
But even after Accela didn’t provide everything he needed to decide on Hardin’s permit and going through the whole rigmarole, Weede was missing the tree removal plan, the most important document of all. He had to get it from Hardin’s lawyer, since the city never provided it. Weede called the whole situation a Catch-22, adding it should have taken only 10 minutes via logging into Accela to find the info he needed.
“It’s confounding, especially in this environment we have with the new mayor (Keisha Lance Bottoms) and the (city) trying to get greater transparency than it (had),” Weede said. “I don’t think the system is designed to create a lack of transparency.
“But that Catch-22, I pushed the arborist’s office as hard as I could. There was no information, nothing as simple as the tree (removal) plan, which would have been submitted to him electronically. I don’t know if it’s defensiveness. But the fact is you essentially can’t appeal the granting of a permit in the tree ordinance. In this case it was fine.
Weede said once he viewed the tree removal plan, he determined the permit application was legitimate.
“There was nothing amiss, (but) the system setup is impossible,” he said. “It’s a classic Catch-22 situation: to make sure the arborist is following the law because you can’t challenge the law and you need the information to make an appeal, but they won’t give you the information. There’s a driveway exception (for the tree removal), but he wouldn’t even tell me that. He had to whisper it to me over the phone. It’s worth $122 to see how crazy it is.”
The city’s response to messages seeking comment on the issue also took three weeks. During the first week of April, the Neighbor left voicemail and email messages with Zaparanick seeking comment on the issue. Those messages were not returned, but the newspaper was referred to Gabrielle Ware, spokeswoman for the Atlanta Department of City Planning, under which its arborist division falls. She called the Neighbor April 9 and then referred the case to Michael Smith, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, who April 24 responded about the case in an emailed statement that included a timeline of the permit’s filing and Weede’s appeal and open records request.
“It is important to note that the historical documents requested by Mr. Weede were not required to submit an appeal in compliance with requirements of the tree protection ordinance,” Smith said. “As part of this administration’s commitment to open government and transparency, a number of departmental online records tools have been instituted—including a project already in the works that places (Department of City Planning) documents and plans online for public review.
“This tool will not only afford residents the convenience of reviewing documents from any location at any time, but will also make the submission and review process completely paperless.”
In an earlier phone interview, Smith said the process to fulfill Weede’s open records request could have been faster had he not asked for 11 years of documents regarding Hardin’s property and previous tree removals.
Weede said he made the request for that period of time because Hardin’s previous involvement with tree removals went back that far. Once he got a copy of the tree removal plan April 1 and realized it was within the law, Weede said he dropped his appeal by the next day.
“I actually give them kudos,” he said of the city’s arborist division. “I think the arborist did what the arborist would do. The driveway took the path of taking the least number of tress. But the system has been created to make it almost impossible to appeal something. Most people would have quit before I did. I just have a stubborn streak.”
Weede said in his job as a real estate lawyer, he researches other municipalities’ online property records often, and found their websites to be more user-friendly and informative.
“It’s just a very odd situation which seems to have been created without much thought,” he said. “The cornerstone of democracy is transparency; all sunshine, no secret deals. Accela was designed for that, but it’s not working in practice. It’s not even in the same stadium. It’s just a complete failure. … It’s got to change.”