Jan. 31, 2023 public hearing scheduled for proposed amendments to county’s Grand Tree provisions to facilitate development

Commissioners Moran and Cutsinger had requested the changes

On Jan. 31, 2023, the Sarasota County Commission will conduct a public hearing on changes that commissioners have sought to the county ordinance that provides protection for Grand Trees.

Draft language has been proposed on the basis of comments that Commissioners Michael Moran and Ron Cutsinger made in October to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department.

They emphasized the need for more flexibility for developers in regard to removal of Grand Trees, which are so defined on the basis of their size.

Among the changes recommended to Chapter 54, Article XVIII of the County Code, a development application would not have to include measures to protect Grand Trees on existing lots for “Safety reasons” or “If the Applicant can clearly demonstrate to the satisfication of [county staff] during permit review, or the [commissioners] on appeal, respectively, that setting aside the space necessary to protect a Grand Tree would unreasonably prevent the Development of a Lot.”

In regard to new lots, exemptions again would apply for safety reasons or if the “Grand Tree is located in a required access point to a Lot with no other reasonable alternative access point as determined by the Code Administrator in consultation with the Sarasota County Engineer.”

Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, is the county engineer.

Additionally, the draft amendment’s section regarding tree planting, relocation and replacements modifies the portion pertaining to commercial properties. While the new version retains the provision that one tree “shall be planted for each 2,000 square feet of the property,” it adds, “Native Trees in good condition protected as part of a Tree Permit may be counted toward the total number of Trees required to be planted.”

Further, it includes another new section that says in circumstances involving expansions of or additions to existing commercial development, “The Tree planting requirements contained in [another section of the County Code] will be calculated based on the square footage of the new impervious area of the Lot being developed. For determining Tree planting requirements, new shell parking areas are considered impervious.”

Yet another change to that section has been proposed in regard to the replacement of Grand Trees. On an existing lot, that modification says, the applicant would have to pay $200 per inch of the tree’s diameter at breast height (DBH) not replanted on the site. However, the section continues, “For every 25% of the total DBH inch that is replanted on site, the $200 fee is reduced by $50. All calculations are to be rounded down in consideration of replanting.”

Then, for new lots, the draft says, the fee per DBH inch not replanted would climb to $400.

Under the Appeals heading of that part of the County Code, the draft retains the provision that the County Commission may consider appeals of those “aggrieved by the administration or interpretation of any of the terms or provisions of this article …”

However, that part of the ordinance has new language pertaining to the appellant; it says, “Applicant or owner” instead of “Any Person.”

Moreover, those appeals to the commissioners may be handled “concurrently with rezoning or special exception petitions when there is a binding development concept plan associated with the petition.” Further, that section adds, “There is no fee associated with the appeals process.”

The agenda packet for the commission’s Dec. 13 meeting included a copy of a letter from the Siesta Key Association (SKA), which President Catherine Luckner sent to Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, following the Oct. 11 discussion with the commissioners.

Luckner copied all of the board members, as well.

The nonprofit requested that the county “retain all protection for Grand Trees,” Luckner wrote, with emphasis.

She also provided a link to information from the University of Florida about tree canopy.

Further, Luckner pointed out that home values are higher in areas of established old-growth, maintained trees; tree canopy slows down heavy rain and decreases flooding impacts; and tree canopy provides cooling to most homes and roads, reducing the need for air conditioning and watering.

She then wrote, “For developers, USE GRAND TREES as your Centerpiece of beauty, history and endurance. Your new neighbors will love the beauty [and] uniqueness,” which will draw people to the community.

“We know engineers and planners can easily work around something such as [a] GRAND TREE with more than a hundred years + of life,” she continued.

“PLEASE KEEP our GRAND TREE PROTECTIONS without exception,” Luckner stressed.

Because the commissioners no longer have agendas organized to reflect a morning schedule and an afternoon schedule, no timeline for the Jan. 31 hearing is indicated in the public notice that staff composed and included in the agenda packet. The meeting that day will take place at the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

During their unanimous vote to approve their Dec. 13 Consent Agenda of routine business matters, the board members authorized the hearing. As is typical in votes on the Consent Agenda, none of the commissioners commented on the item.