ALPHARETTA, Ga. − You hear it whispered under their breaths.
Longtime residents sigh while descending the steps of City Hall after a Monday night meeting, a meeting where another building, another condo or another mixed-use development has been given the green light.
“The trees are vanishing.”
Those residents seldom speak up at meetings, and their silence screams a defeat at the Alpharetta they once knew.
While Alpharetta has remained a “Tree City USA” for the past 27 years and still boasts some of the strictest tree ordinances in metro Atlanta, any visitor to this growing technology hub can see the transformation it’s undergone in the past few years.
“We are very sensitive to that,” said City Arborist David Shostak. “We do hear from our residents and we take it seriously.”
In the past four years, this city of 64,000 has been on fire with development – Avalon, the mega-mixed-use development off Ga. 400; a new government complex, library and four-story parking deck in the downtown.
And within days, more buildings for shops, offices and housing will be going up to complete the envisioned City Center.
This is not to mention the development that has cascaded to nearby properties: Thompson Street from downtown east to Avalon will soon have more than 200 new homes or townhomes along with restaurants and retail. Similar developments have begun on Haynes Bridge Road, Academy Street and on Kimball Bridge near Northwinds, to name a few.
Amid this commercial and residential expansion, Alpharetta capped its annual Arbor Day celebration Saturday with tree plantings at City Hall.
A handful of volunteers turned out that brisk morning to plant some 70 native dogwoods.
To the city arborist, the Arbor Day celebration reminds us of trees and all the benefits trees have for the city and society in general – clean air, clean water, storm water control, aesthetics, reduced energy costs.
Shostak said the city remains committed to a tree canopy.
“We use the law to maintain or recreate that canopy cover that’s lost during development,” he said. “The city actually has a really big commitment to the tree canopy, but not always based on the individual site to preserving.”
It is always toward recreating to get that canopy back in the future,Shostak said. He pointed to the trees at City Hall.
“There’s probably more trees here now than there were before we started the development of the city hall,” he said. “Again, some are smaller than others, but they will eventually grow.”
Indeed, some of the new trees have branched out and now stand over 20 feet tall. Some of the crepe myrtles near the building were actually relocated from other areas in an effort to rescue them.
“I do my best to make the developers follow the code as well as residents and business owners,” Shostak said. “It’s a very rewarding position, and sometimes there’s give and take.
“You can’t always make everybody happy. But we do our best to land somewhere in the middle to make everybody as happy as we can.”
The city also is pouring millions of resident-approved bond money into land purchases for parks and park improvements.
It recently unveiled plans for a pair of loop trails – 2-mile and 5-mile paths – that will encircle the commercial district and eventually connect to the wildly popular Big Creek Greenway.
All that is fine and good with Debra Zemlock who heads the Alpharetta Natural Resources Commission. But, Saturday, she just wanted to get the 70 saplings in the ground.
Zemlock said she’s proud of the heritage trees enjoy in Alpharetta, and it’s up to each resident to preserve that heritage.
“I think that there’s a lot of community support for it,” she said. “I think the community itself is very much behind planting and preserving trees.”
At the same time, the city has seen an influx of new residents, people with no knowledge of Alpharetta’s past. These people need to be brought on board and reminded their homes, their office required clearing some trees, she said.
“I think we need to maintain the sense of ever needing to replant trees because we are a development-oriented community. We simply are,” she said. “Our goal is to attract technology companies and to have all the wonderful amenities and social draws that make it an enjoyable place to live.”
However, it’s important to realize, that most of the large trees the city enjoys today were planted by people who lived in homes on land once covered in trees. Newcomers should be encouraged to do the same, and remain vigilant, she said.
“It’s significant. If people are ever concerned about the number of trees coming down, they need to contact their city councilman, even if they feel discouraged,” Zemlock said. “Really when the voices go silent is when we all lose.”