City of Savannah, Georgia

City of Savannah Landscape and Tree Protection Ordinance

Anyone who has visited, or seen pictures of, the City of Savannah is certainly aware that Savannah has an outstanding community forest and deserves its name as “The Forest City.”

Live Oak arch & fountain

Stewardship of this historic city’s valuable tree resource goes back nearly two hundred years, and began as described on the city’s website:

The City of Savannah has a grand history as The Forest City. General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1733. One of the first ordinances in the new colony was a prohibition against cutting trees, stating “No tree may be cut without the express permission of Noble Jones”. As early as 1891, trees were planted in an organized manner along streets and boulevards, and in parks and squares. In 1896, the Park and Tree Commission was established to assure the orderly forestation and beautification of the entire City.


SOME GENERAL INFORMATION

Savannah is the eighth largest city in Georgia in geographic area, encompassing 103.7 square miles, and has the fifth largest population of 146,763 (2016 estimate, ranking below Macon-Bibb County, Augusta-Richmond County, Columbus, and Atlanta).

Savannah is located in the Coastal Plain of southeastern Georgia, on the Savannah River, approximately 20 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean, making it an important port and industrial center.

The government structure in Savannah consists of a mayor and 8 aldermen; the mayor and 2 of the aldermen are elected city-wide, while the remaining six (6) aldermen are elected by the citizens in each aldermanic district.

The city was first designated a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation in 1985.  It has also been recognized as a Sterling City USA “for its long-standing commitment to professional management and improvement of the urban forest resource.”


GREENSCAPES DEPARTMENT

The city’s urban forest management program is conducted by the Greenscapes Department (formerly the Park and Tree Department), headed by Director Gordon Denney.  The department assists the public with trees in the city rights-of-way, including pruning, planting, and hazard tree removal.

The Landscape and Tree Protection Ordinance is administered through the Park and Tree Department.  Mr. Denney feels that the tree ordinance works well because:

“It is a good balance of incentives and penalties. Also, we have a history of caring for trees and knowing their importance both ecologically and economically.”

Ted Buckley in the Park and Tree Department (wbuckley@savannahga.gov, (912)651-6610) is the current Tree Ordinance Administrator, and works closely with the development community in tree ordinance compliance and implementation.

The tree ordinance regulates trees on private property and is applicable to property being developed or redeveloped for commercial, industrial, institutional, multi-family and single-family subdivisions.  It specifically excludes developed single-family residential lots.


LANDSCAPE AND TREE PROTECTION ORDINANCE

The stated purposes of the Landscape and Tree Protection Ordinance are to:

  • Protect and maintain the urban forest by managing the impact of development;
  • Preserve the environmental and aesthetic assets of the community through tree planting and landscaping; and,
  • Provide trees with protection from removal through tree removal permitting.

Tree ordinance administrator Ted Buckley provided some additional information on the purpose of the ordinance:

In addition to the stated purpose, the Ordinance also provides us with the code enforcement powers to monitor and regulate how new and remedial infrastructure work is done on City property, such as rights-of-way. This is probably our greatest source of jeopardy for City trees and it requires us to monitor all right-of-way permits to ensure that contractors follow our permit conditions.

The City of Savannah’s current tree ordinance has been in place, in various forms, since 1990, and was last revised in March of 2017.  There are currently no changes being proposed for the tree ordinance.

Accompanying the tree protection ordinance is a 102-page Landscape and Tree Protection Ordinance Manual (2012).  The compliance manual includes the city’s Landscape and Tree Ordinance Tree, Shrub & Ground Cover Lists, which guide tree planting and conservation decisions for satisfying the tree and landscape density requirements.

Recent text amendments that include a Text Amendment to Sec. 8-11004 Definitions and a Text Amendment to Sec. 8-11008 Design Requirements regulate the establishment and planting of trees, shrubs and flowers in tree lawns.  These text amendments are accompanied by a 20-page Tree Lawn Compliance and Policy Guide (2017).

Another resource available on the city’s website for developers is the Site Development Plan Checklist (2016).  All of the tree ordinance documents are posted for easy accessibility and download on the city’s website.

The city’s code of ordinances also includes language establishing the Savannah Park and Tree Commission.


SAVANNAH PARK AND TREE COMMISSION

The Savannah Park and Tree Commission is established in two sections within the city’s code of ordinances, separate from the tree protection ordinance.  Part 2 – Government and Administration, Chapter 5. – Boards, Commissions and Councils,  Article G. – Savannah Park and Tree Commission is a brief section that establishes the commission as an “active advisory council to the mayor and aldermen” and states that it “shall serve as the official voice to the mayor and aldermen on behalf of the citizens on issues affecting scenic parks and the urban forest.”  It further describes the power, duties and responsibilities of the commission.

Division I – The Charter and Related Laws, Article 8. Boards, Commission, and Authorities, Chapter 2. – Parks and Recreation, Subchapter_B. – Park and Tree Commission states that the commission was created “on the first Monday in January, eighteen hundred and ninety-six” and establishes in detail the operating procedures of the commission.


COMMON DEFINITIONS

Most communities define a critical root zone in their tree ordinances, but the definitions vary in the distance the zone extends out from the tree trunk.  A distance of 1 foot for every inch DBH is common, as are 1.25 feet and 1.5 feet for every inch DBH.  DBH means “diameter at breast height” and is a measure of trunk diameter at 4.5 feet above the ground.  Savannah defines the critical root zone as “1 foot per inch of trunk diameter (dbh).”

The city defines a tree as “a self-supporting woody, perennial plant that usually produces a main stem or trunk with a definitely formed crown of foliage and a minimum height of ten (10) feet at maturity”, a minimum height commonly used in Georgia tree ordinances, with 15 feet also commonly cited.  The city cites no minimum diameter; most communities cite that for a woody plant to be a tree, it must be able to attain a minimum DBH of 2 or 3 inches.

The city also defines several categories of special trees.


SPECIAL TREE CATEGORIES

The city defines 4 categories of trees that are the focus for conservation and planting within the city.

  • Canopy trees are trees that will grow to a mature height of at least 40 feet with a spread of at least 30 feet.
  • An exceptional tree is any hardwood canopy tree over 36 inches DBH, a softwood tree over 30 inches DBH or an understory tree over 8 inches DBH, and designated to be of notable historic interest, high aesthetic value or unique character due to its species, type, age or size.
  • A protected tree is any tree for which a clearing permit is required, and includes:

o   Trees 2 inches DBH and greater on undeveloped property;

o   Trees 12 inches DBH and greater on developed property, excluding single-family residential;

o   Trees retained or planted for Tree Quality Points or to meet greenspace requirements;

o   Trees in wetlands; and,

o   Specimen or exceptional trees.

  • Specimen trees are preferred large canopy tree species over 24 inches DBH with normal proportion, characteristics and attributes for its size and species, and free of disease, pest or injury with a life expectancy of at least 10 years, and also includes: live oaks and magnolias (M. grandiflora) 14 inches DBH and larger; longleaf and spruce pines 10 inches DBH and larger; all other canopy species 16 inches DBH and larger; and, small species 6 inches DBH and larger.

PERMITS REQUIRED

The city’s tree removal permit takes the form of a clearing permit that is required for clearing property of trees or the removal of any protected tree, except for the following:

  • Utility easements, except where they cross tree easements, set-asides or natural buffers;
  • Airports and heliports requiring clear areas;
  • Land zoned and used for agricultural purposes for the duration of such use;
  • Residential lots with existing single-family or duplex use, until it is converted to multi-family or non-residential use; and,
  • A tree determined by an ISA Certified Arborist to be hazardous or an imminent threat to public safety.

The clearing permit takes the form of a land disturbance activities permit.  Applications for the permit are submitted to the development services department along with a site plan, boundary survey, and location map, as w.  The tree ordinance requires a greenspace plan which must include a tree protection plan, tree establishment plan and landscape plan.


TREE PLANS REQUIRED

The city requires a development to have a greenspace plan, which must include a tree establishment plan, a tree protection plan, and a landscape plan.  Accompanying this is a plot plan that includes a map and supporting documentation describing where improvements are to be located and where greenspace, as required by the regulations, is to be retained or planted.

TREE DENSITY REQUIREMENTS

The city bases its requirements for tree density on a tree quality point system as well as a greenspace percent.  Development sites are required to have, per acre:

  • 1,600 tree quality points;
  • 400 landscape quality points for commercial, industrial, institutional and multi-family developments;
  • 1,200 tree quality points for parking areas; and,
  • 20 percent greenspace.

Large and medium canopy trees are given tree quality points and small trees, shrubs and ground cover are given landscape quality points.  A conserved tree’s value in terms of tree quality points is dependent on both its species and trunk diameter.

Tree quality points, or planting points, are assigned to newly planted trees based on species desirability and expected mature size.  The planting points are assigned as follows:

Mature Size Acceptable Recommended Preferred
Small 3 5 10
Medium 5 15 30
Large 15 40 90

The tree species list shows that a red maple tree is given 90 planting points as a preferred, large-maturing species, whereas a Leyland cypress tree is given only 15 planting points as a large-maturing but only acceptable choice for planting.

Landscape quality points are similarly assigned based upon the quality of the species and the mature size of the plant.

For retained trees, a quality points factor—or retention factor—is assigned to each tree species based on its desirability, as follows:

  • Acceptable species – .5
  • Recommended species – .75
  • Preferred species – 1.5
  • Specimen tree – 2.0
  • Exceptional tree – 2.5 and 3.0 (must be certified by the City Council)

The retention factor is listed for each species in the tree species list and is used as a multiplier to calculate the tree quality points for a retained tree.

Total tree quality points for a specific tree are calculated by squaring the DBH and multiplying by the retention factor (quality points factor):

DBH2 x (Retention Points Factor) = Tree Quality Points

Tree quality points for a 10-inch DBH red maple (preferred species) that is being retained would be calculated as follows:

(10)*(10)*1.5 = 150 Tree Quality Points

Tree quality points are assigned to an area of preserved trees by first measuring the area in square feet and then multiplying by a set-aside factor of .25.  For example, if 5,000 square feet of trees are retained, then the amount of tree quality points equals 5,000 multiplied by .25, which equals 1,250 tree quality points.  Landscape points are credited for the area at .10 point per square foot.

For palm trees, which are common throughout the area, 2 tree quality points are assigned per foot of stem height for existing trees, with a maximum of 20 points.

Retained trees must be at least 4 inches DBH to qualify for tree quality points.


ALTERNATIVE COMPLIANCE

Savannah’s tree ordinance establishes an escrow fund for receiving payments in lieu of meeting the minimum required tree quality points for a site, and for payments for compensation for damage or removal of city trees.  The fund is used to purchase, plant and maintain trees and landscaping on city property.

The tree ordinance also allows for the planting of trees off-site when they cannot be located on the site, if approved by the administrator.


OTHER REQUIREMENTS

A dedicated water source within 100 feet of new trees is required along with a commitment to ensure tree establishment.  This is not required for trees retained in greenspace areas.

A Two-Year Tree and Landscape Establishment Bond must be posted prior to issuance of the certificate of occupancy.  The administrator inspects the site 12 and 24 months after the date of the bond to check the conditions of the trees and landscaping, and the bond is released if the trees are “viable”.


UNIQUE FEATURES

The use of tree quality points for measuring tree density, and the focus on tree lawns, are somewhat unique, but there are several other features of Savannah’s tree ordinance that are unique among tree ordinances in Georgia.

  • When specimen trees cannot be retained and are proposed for removal, they must be replaced by large preferred trees at the rate of 1 tree per inch DBH over 24 inches. These trees are in addition to trees retained or planted to meet minimum tree quality points requirements.
  • Street trees are limited to those with a value of 90 tree quality points as identified in the tree species lists.
  • If approved by the administrator, a set-aside area on another property owned by the owner/developer can be established as a permanent, recorded conservation easement in lieu of meeting the tree quality points requirement. The set-aside area must have sufficient tree quality points as required by the tree ordinance.
  • A person applying for a building permit who owns more than 1 lot in the same phase of a new subdivision can aggregate or average the tree quality points as long as the total tree quality points for all lots equals or exceeds the minimum required for all lots.
  • A land disturbance permit is required prior to timber harvesting.  Development, timber harvest and reforestation plans are required prior to the issuance of the land disturbance permit (agricultural land use is exempt).  Minimum tree quality point requirements, buffer requirements, and tree protection requirements apply.

2012 Washington Ave 2


Posted January 2018

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