Just up the hill from the platform courts at Bitsy Grant Tennis Center in Buckhead, a small sign on the edge of ivy-covered woods reads “Tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera, Champion Tree 2014.”

The three-foot-high black metal sign has an Atlanta seal in the lower right-hand corner. It’s not immediately clear what it is referencing.

In a straight line from that unassuming sign, at the bottom of a steep ravine, is what can best be described as a massive tree — a champion to be sure. It is 10 or so feet from an unnamed Peachtree Creek tributary.

With a base circumference of more than 14 feet, it reaches more than 166 feet high. The impressive tulip poplar — its common name — is the tallest tree in the city of Atlanta.

It’s virtually hidden because of its location. Its highest branches don’t stand out, but they are as high as the branches of the trees along the top of the hill way above it.

It is a fantastic tree, one that has survived this long because of the undevelopable ravine in which it sits and the fact it is on the edge of a park. No one has chained themselves to it. There has been no public effort I know of to protect it. It’s just there, with a small black sign letting passersby know there’s a noteworthy tree somewhere nearby.

We as a city have grown and built and paved our way to the point that big trees stand out, celebrated as unique. It wasn’t always this way.

The plight of our diminishing tree canopy has been noticed by the city of Atlanta. Over the last several months, it has sought public input to its tree protection ordinance.

It is a matter that affects us all.

Last year, I was shocked when the trees at the corner of East Andrews Drive and Roswell Road were cleared to make way for an apartment community. I don’t know the exact circumstances. I imagine the city of Atlanta approved the site plan, but it didn’t make the loss of those trees any less heartbreaking.

The challenge with the current tree protection ordinance is anyone who takes down a tree illegally pays a fine based on the circumference. So if a project is being built for say $50 million, spending a few thousand dollars for lost trees and a larger footprint makes sense. That is what it is.

The other side of the coin is something we have dealt with, which is removing a tree on our property. Tree removal fines may be affordable for some, but they are significant for individual homeowners.

When we called a city arborist to check on a tree we’d like to remove, it was a hassle. The tree’s large branches were hanging over our daughter’s bedroom. There was some urgency. When the city arborist finally got to us, he said we couldn’t cut the tree down.

We had a fundamental difference of opinion on what one can and cannot do on one’s property.

There is no doubt in my mind the tree ordinance needs improving. What that looks like is to be determined, and that has many people rightly concerned. For example, it was reported in these pages last month that residents are concerned the appeals process could be killed. That begs the question of what recourse a homeowner has if he or she is denied a permit.

The city is still working on it.

The stated goal is to reach a 50% tree canopy. We are currently at 47%. It’s all relative. Where we live, there are trees aplenty. It is one of the most verdant neighborhoods in the city.

But there are communities where our growth has caused a dramatic shift in tree cover. The city is right to be mindful of not only where we are at this moment, but also what we will look like two decades down the road if we don’t fix the tree ordinance now.

We are, after all, the city in the forest.

The tulip popular near Bitsy Grant shouldn’t be as lonely as it is. Not too long ago, great oaks and tulip poplars and hickories and sourwoods and many, many more were as grand as the old girl standing sentinel off Northside Drive.

While I appreciate the novelty of the tallest tree in Atlanta being in Buckhead, we should be working toward a city where magnificent trees are the norm and not an outlier.

Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is the president of PR South and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at tkennedy@prsouth.net.

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