While Newton County does have ordinances in place which mandate new trees must be planted in new developments to replace the trees which are cut down - it is ultimately up to the homeowners to see the merit in keeping the trees on their property.
The county's Tree and Landscape Ordinance has specific requirements for landscaping, including tree planting, for both residential and commercial cites.
In new residential developments the ordinance requires that a minimum of three canopy hardwood trees be planted for every new home that goes up. Canopy trees are trees which grow to big. Hardwood trees are trees which generally have a life expectancy of 100 to 200 years.
According to a memo from County Arborist Debbie Bell to all county inspectors, each new tree must measure 1.5 inches in diameter at planting. The trees can go in the front or back yard or any combination thereof unless the subdivision has a 'street tree' requirement.
Short-lived trees (species such as Dogwoods and Daphne) and weak-wooded trees (species such as Bradford Pears and Silver Maple) do not count towards the three tree credits of the county ordinance said Bell.
Additionally trees and shrubs which are classified as invasive exotic species cannot be approved for tree credit.
According to the memo, residential landscapes are inspected for proper planting technique, compliance with the approved plant plan and plant health before a project receives its final Certificate of Occupancy. Homeowners are allowed to plant whatever they wish once they have taken possession of the house.
Despite the requirements of the ordinance, Harold Quigley, chief ranger for the Newton-Rockdale-Dekalb Forestry Unit, said he has real concerns that the county's tree population is in danger. According to Quigley, the number of forested acres in Newton County has decreased from approximately 150,000 forested acres 20 years ago to 98,200 forested acres today.
Quigley said it was his opinion that despite the ordinance's requirement of planting the three hardwood trees per new lot either developers are somehow getting around the requirement or new homeowners are having the seedlings removed once they take possession of the house.
Hardwood, long life-span trees are more expensive than weak-wood, short-life span trees. This could lead to a desire by developers to plant the weak-wood trees instead speculated Quigley who added he was not aware of the hardwood tree requirement in the ordinance when he shared his concerns with the BOC on Sept. 18.
"I think they're getting around it somehow," said Quigley on Friday. "You can ride through these subdivisions and see these little Bradford Pears sticking out in the front yards."
However Bell said she was confident that county inspectors are checking closely for the three hardwood trees when they inspect new homes before issuing them their Certificate of Occupancy.
"Occasionally someone will plant a Bradford Pear and it will slip past," Bell said. "Over all most of the trees that have been planted have been hardwood trees such as oaks and maples."
Quigley speculated that one reason he isn't seeing many hardwood trees in the new subdivisions is because they are planted out of site in the backyard.
Alan Freeman, president of the Newton County Home Builder's Association, said due to the running of underground utilities from beneath the front yard into the home, there often is nowhere else to plant the three hardwood trees but in the backyard.
"We like trees. We sure don't like to have to take them down because they're very expensive to have to remove," Freeman said. "As far as aesthetics it makes the neighborhood look better. When it has trees, it makes it look more appealing."
Freeman said he is often asked by new home owners if the new trees have to be planted in their yards.
"When I tell them 'yes' they say well I'm gong to take them down,' Freeman said.
While the county requires home builders to plant new trees in their developments, Freeman said there is no law keeping the homeowners from cutting down the new trees if they don't want them on their property.
While the cities of Covington, Newborn and Oxford are certified by Tree City USA (Mansfield and Porterdale will become Tree Cities in the coming year), Newton County is not.
For a community to be certified by Tree City USA they must do four things: have a Tree Board or department, have a tree care ordinance, have a community forestry program with an annual budget of at least $2 per capita and observe Arbor Day.
At the Sept. 18 BOC meeting Quigley said he hoped the county would begin the process of becoming a certified Tree City.
Bell said she would like to see the county's tree ordinance improved upon but that it was a complicate process of balancing tree protection with balanced economic growth.
"Our tree-replanting requirement s and tree protection requirements could be better," Bell said.
Bell added that trees provide enormous benefits to their communities including economic benefits, social benefits, environmental benefits and health benefits.