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300 trees were cut down at Columbus Park Crossing — but they were protected by state law

Citizen complaints, government action stop tree cutting along busy traffic corridor

The trees that were recently cut down along J.R. Allen Parkway in Columbus are protected under state law. They are among the many planted in the 1990s as part of the Gateways Project, an effort to beautify the main corridors in and out of Columbus.
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The trees that were recently cut down along J.R. Allen Parkway in Columbus are protected under state law. They are among the many planted in the 1990s as part of the Gateways Project, an effort to beautify the main corridors in and out of Columbus.

What started as a Georgia Department of Transportation permitted tree cutting along J.R. Allen Parkway has drawn the attention of the city of Columbus and a local environmental group and sent the property owner and state scrambling for a replanting solution.

Late last month, the owner of three buildings in Columbus Park Crossing — Ashley Furniture, Hobby Lobby and the former HH Gregg — had a state-issued permit clean up the underbrush and remove limbs from some of the larger trees on the right of way between the highway and the buildings.

Hundreds of trees were cut on the right of way and the adjoining private property along a 330-yard stretch of J.R. Allen. Though some trees remain, there is an almost unobstructed view of the buildings.

Concerned citizens brought the cutting to the attention of the city and Tree Columbus Inc., a local advocacy group that protects and plants trees throughout Columbus. Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, when she was notified, reached out to GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry.

Since that time, the city, GDOT and permit holder James “Jay” Stelzenmuller have been working to find a solution to the problem.

“I have spoken with the owner, I have spoken with the DOT and it seems like we are all of one heart and mind at this point,” Tomlinson said late last week. “We are all very interested in remediation. We have a meeting set in the next week of so. From our various perspectives, we are going to be pulling together estimates and proposals about how to replant trees and pay for the replanting.”

A meeting with GDOT and the city has been scheduled later this week to discuss the issue.

Stelzenmuller could not be reached for comment.

In March, Stelzenmuller applied for a permit with GDOT. He was granted the permit on April 3, but there were restrictions. No trees larger than 4-inches in diameter could be removed and limbs on the larger trees could only be taken off up to 6 feet from the ground. The city has inspected the cutting area and determined that more than 200 trees larger than what was allowed have been cut down, Tomlinson said.

As part of the permit, Stelzenmuller was required to post a $10,000 performance bond.

A GDOT spokesperson said Tuesday that “some work was done outside the limits of the permit.”

“GDOT is working — and has been for several weeks — with the permit holder and city representatives to mitigate any tress that may have taken in excess of those that were included in the permit,” spokesperson Natalie Dale said in an email. “GDOT representatives are meeting with mayor later this week to discuss issue, handling of future permit requests, and any potential mitigation plans.”

That is where the city and the state disagree. The trees that were cut were part of a local beautification project in the 1990s that was funded by mostly private investment. The Gateways Projected did extensive plantings along J.R. Allen and Interstate 185 in an effort to create green corridors into and out of Columbus.

Thus, the trees along J.R. Allen Parkway and I-185 are protected under state law.

The day after the cutting was discovered in late June, there was a meeting in Columbus with city officials and GDOT officials involved in the permitting process.

“We discussed the nuance, if you will, but the very real and legal nuance related to Columbus,” Tomlinson said. “And we quickly realized, certainly in our opinion, and perhaps in their opinion — but I won’t speak for them — that the permit should have never been issued. And even as issued it was violated, or not followed, let’s say.”

The state is not ready to make that concession.

“The permit is valid and nothing indicates that it shouldn’t have been issued,” Deal said.

Trees Columbus Executive Director Dorothy McDaniel comes down on the side of the city.

“But from Trees Columbus standpoint, we know that trees that are part of this beautification effort are protected,” McDaniel said. “So, there shouldn’t be permits issued for vegetation management on this corridor at all.”

The mistake could have been a lot bigger, and it wasn’t, McDaniel said.

“In a place like Macon or Augusta, not to throw any other communities under the bus, but Columbus has gone the extra mile to protect these trees locally and to protect these trees at the state level,” McDaniel said.

In addition to the issue of cutting down trees that were not permitted on the state right of way, a large number of mature trees on private property were removed in violation of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, Tomlinson said.

“... When property is developed, it is developed with a specific representation that you will maintain a certain number of tree density units,” Tomlinson said. “That’s how you get the zoning. That’s how you get the permitting. Whenever we have a circumstance like this, where people forget or contractor didn’t know, whatever the circumstance may be, there is an ordinance. A citation is issued. And there has to be some sort of remediation, we figure out how to plant tree density units to bring you back up to where you need to be.”

Stelzenmuller has not yet been cited, but rather is working with the city for a solution, Tomlinson said.

“He and the arborist are working on a remediation plan,” Tomlinson said. “Every property owner can submit a remediation plan. If it’s accepted or accepted with some modifications, that resolves the violation. If there’s not an agreement on remission, a citation is issued and the courts figure it out.”

The city has hired Thomas Gristina of Page Scrantom Sprouse Tucker Ford to represent it in the manner, Tomlinson said. Gristina has represented the city in previous litigation against GDOT over billboards.

“The city has had legal counsel from Day 1 before we knew what was going on because we didn’t know what was going on,” Tomlinson said. “So we contacted our lawyer who was very much involved in the billboard litigation because we thought it was a billboard issue, initially.”

State Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, has fought environmental issues in the General Assembly for years and was notified of the tree cutting when it was taking place. She said she was told by the person overseeing the cutting crew that the property was being cleared under the GDOT permit to put a sign on the back of the buildings.

That is not permitted, Tomlinson said.

“It turned out that it was a permit pulled to put a sign up on the back of the building, which is also not allowed because our interpretation of the statute is that falls within the definition of a billboard,” the mayor said.

Tomlinson said she has spoken to Stelzenmuller about the situation.

“It turned out to be a permit pulled for day lighting a building, which is also not allowed,” the mayor said. “It turned out that it was a permit pulled to put a sign up on the back of the building, which is also not allowed because our interpretation of the statute is that falls within the definition of a billboard.”

The remarkable thing about this story, is not so much that the trees were cut, but that after the trees were cut there was a general consensus of everyone involved that it was a mistake, McDaniel said.

“There are very few places where that would have happened,” she said. “The second thing that is so remarkable about this situation is these trees will be replanted. The city is working with all of the other involved parties in this cutting, which is also remarkable. Not only did everyone say this was a mistake, but they are sitting down and figuring out, ‘How do we fix it? How do we get trees back in the right of way?’ And this is the only place in Georgia where that would have happened.”

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