After hours of debate, Sarasota city commissioners ask staff to craft further revisions to tree ordinance

Commissioner Brody repeatedly calls for more flexibility for homeowners

This is a photo of tree stumps on a lot in a neighborhood where a new house is planned. It was among numerous images that residents showed the city commissioners on Feb. 22. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Even though multiple speakers urged the Sarasota City Commission not to figuratively “kick the can down the road” when it came to revising the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance, that was exactly what the board members did on Feb. 22.

After a failed motion by Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch to accept most of the recommendations of the ad hoc Tree Advisory Committee, which was established in 2017 to address the city’s tree protection laws, Commissioner Hagen Brody tried a different approach.

Brody called for staff to take into consideration the board members’ discussion that day and craft a new ordinance with stronger protections for mature, grand trees. He asked that the draft also include other species for designation as grand trees. (The city’s Tree Advisory Committee suggested that, along with live oaks and sand live oaks, slash pines, longleaf pines and Southern red cedars with a diameter of 24 inches or more be designated grand trees.)

Additionally, Brody sought simplified regulations for homeowners.

During more than four hours of the commissioners’ exchanges with an assistant city attorney and two city staff members who deal with tree issues, Brody insisted multiple times that homeowners should have “maximum flexibility to manage their own yard,” as he put it in his motion.

Mayor Erik Arroyo passed the gavel to Vice Mayor Kyle Battie to second the motion.

“I don’t think that our arborist needs to micromanage every tree in this city,” Brody said. “I think our residents are fully capable of making a decision about what tree they want in the front yard, side yard, versus the backyard.”

The revision of the ordinance that the advisory committee recommended, Brody continued, “is largely geared towards the wealthier areas of our community and ignores the fact that our working class neighborhoods are not aware that we have such a complicated tree ordinance. … People get caught up in this ‘tree court,’ as they call it, and they’re shocked when they find out how difficult it is for them to manage their own yard …”

“I’m going to echo that and completely agree,” Arroyo responded.

This is a slash pine. Image courtesy of the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS)

(By “tree court,” Brody was referring to the Code Enforcement process. A violation of the city code can lead to a hearing before a Special Magistrate, who considers testimony and evidence and then provides direction to staff and the property owner about how they should proceed in resolving the issue. Fines can be imposed.)

Following Brody’s remarks about his motion, Assistant City Attorney Joe Mladinich, who served as counsel to the Tree Advisory Committee (TAC), told the commissioners, “I do not have a clear vision of what the majority of the commission wants.”

City Manager Marlon Brown tried to sum it up: “What I’m understanding … is that other than canopy trees or mature trees,” flexibility is the goal. “In other words,” Brown added, “a homeowner can remove any tree they’d like.”
However, Brown asked Brody to define what he meant by “flexibility.”

“This is difficult to do,” Brody replied, “because I’m not, you know, a tree lawyer.” Again, he emphasized more protection for grand trees, as the TAC had recommended. Brody noted, for example, that city Senior Arborist Mark Miller had talked about the value of native trees to the environment. Then Brody stated again his desire for people to be able to manage their own yards.

Commissioner Ahearn-Koch emphasized that the TAC had diversity among its members, including two people from the development community and two neighborhood representatives. The group held 26 meetings over 22 months, she added. The recommendations the commissioners had discussed that day were the result of all the TAC’s work, she stressed. City staff members called for adjustments to only three of those recommendations, she pointed out.

If the City Commission did not go ahead and approve a revised ordinance, Ahearn-Koch said, “We’re going to continue to have trees cut down.”

Earlier during the discussion, she had noted a bill under consideration in the Florida Legislature’s 2022 session that would give business owners the right to file suit against local governments if those bodies enact any regulations that result in a business losing 15% of its income. That was all the more reason, she stressed, that the board members needed to act that day, so their revised ordinance would be “grandfathered in,” if the state law passed. Assistant City Attorney Mladinich had noted that he expected it to win final approval.

Commissioner Liz Alpert. File photo

Even after Brody provided more comments about what he was calling for in his motion, Commissioner Liz Alpert pointed out, “It doesn’t give staff enough direction.”

Alpert had proposed going through the TAC recommendations one by one, to build consensus among the commissioners for accepting them or tweaking them, but she was unable to gain support for that proposal.

Then Arroyo said that he would have voted for a motion that Ahearn-Koch had made earlier — which only Alpert had ended up supporting — if Ahearn-Koch had not wanted to proceed with a first board vote on it that afternoon, without asking staff first to come back with a draft showing the changes.

Finally, Brody withdrew his motion and just asked staff to draft a new version of the city ordinance, based on the commissioners’ guidance that day.

At that point, Arroyo said no motion would be needed and agreed with Brody’s direction to staff.

City Attorney Fournier told the commissioners he believed the staff members understood “what we’re supposed to do.” After completing the new draft, Fournier added, staff would present that to the board members, along with a list showing all of the changes that had been made.

“We’ll see you at a future date,” Arroyo told Mladinich; Kevin McAndrew, general manager of the city’s Development Services Department; and arborist Miller.

The TAC proposals and staff recommendations

During his opening remarks on the proposed changes to the city’s tree regulations, Mladinich referenced a matrix that staff had prepared. It compared existing elements of the city law to the TAC’s recommendations.

For example, the very first item on the list called for decreasing the minimum size of required replacement trees. The existing city ordinance provides three sizes, based on the size of the tree that would be removed. It also specifies the number of replacement trees in accord with those sizes.

These are the first two sections of the matrix that Assistant City Attorney Joe Mladinich discussed on Feb. 22. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The TAC, Mladinich explained, recommended that required replacement trees should have a 3-inch minimum diameter, if they are canopy trees; a 2-inch diameter would be necessary for all others. The TAC members felt that, with smaller trees, “You can have a greater variety of species,” and the expense of purchasing them would be lower, he said.

In fact, he continued, “Sometimes smaller trees are better in the long run,” because larger trees might not thrive as well when transplanted from pots.

The TAC balanced that proposed change, Mladinich noted, with its second recommendation: changing the basis for determining mitigation to a methodology based upon the total aggregate inches of tree diameter removed. The TAC called for replacing “inch for inch, every inch of tree removed,” Mladinich said. Thus, a person could plant more trees or larger trees, or they could pay the necessary fee into the city’s tree mitigation fund, he added.

However, Mladinich told the commissioners, city staff felt that that revision of the ordinance “would require a lot more calculations,” which would make the process more difficult to handle.

These are two more sections of the matrix. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The third change would affect the section of the ordinance saying that a tree cannot legally be removed for re-landscaping purposes. Mladinich noted that the TAC felt more flexibility was needed, so it called for an amendment to allow trees to be removed for re-landscaping, with no mitigation, if the area where trees would be taken out reflected “over-density,” or the homeowner would be removing no more than 25% of the total tree canopy. The latter determination could be based on aerial photos of the property before the removal began, he noted.

Among other proposals, he continued, the TAC wanted to encourage the planting of the right tree in the right location. For example, a tree should not be put in a spot where its growth will end up interfering with overhead power lines. “The TAC was trying to encourage intelligent planting,” he said, “and a bigger and better tree canopy …”

Yet another recommendation called for a provision of a list of “Incentive Trees,” whose planting would be encouraged through the city’s providing extra credit toward required mitigation.

The “Incentive Trees,” Mladinich explained, would be species that grow well in the environment and that are more aesthetically pleasing.

(From left) Kevin McAndrew, general manager of the city’s Development Services Department; Assistant City Attorney Joe Mladinich and city Senior Arborist Mark Miller face the dais during the Feb. 22 meeting. News Leader image

In a similar vein, the TAC proposed that property owners get no credit for mitigation if they plant “undesirable trees,” which are species that “are more harmful to the native environment. Likewise, he added, an undesirable tree could be removed without the need for mitigation.

Yet another proposal — to which staff objected — called for no mitigation for the removal of palm trees, unless the species was a cabbage palm, Mladinich continued. Staff believes palm tree mitigation is not warranted, he said.

Members of public urge board to preserve trees

These are the ‘incentive trees’ that the Tree Advisory Committee recommended for planting in the city. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Of the 14 people who addressed the commissioners during the Feb. 22 public hearing, all but two urged them to take steps to protect the city’s trees. Several expressed dismay that so many mature specimens are being removed for development purposes.

“What’s being proposed here is better than what you currently have,” Jono Miller, retired director of New College’s Environmental Studies Program, pointed out of the TAC recommendations.

“This city should be all over trees,” he added. An international organization called the TREE Foundation is headquartered in Sarasota, Miller noted.

That nonprofit’s website explains that it is focused on “[t]ree research, education and exploration.”

“We’re losing some of [the city’s] trees just on people’s whims,” Miller stressed.

People “will buy property,” Miller continued, “and then, without really engaging or talking to neighbors, they’ll make decisions [on how the site should look]. … I don’t understand what kind of arrogance it takes,” he added, for a person who owns a parcel for perhaps 100 days, and then removes a tree that is 110 or 120 years old — “older than the City of Sarasota.” That tree, Miller pointed out, is “bigger than they are. It’s alive. It’s done more for the environment and maybe doing more for the real estate values than they are.”

Miller presented the board members two aerial photos of a parcel in his neighborhood. The first, from 2008, showed an abundance of trees. After the property had changed hands, in 2018, the second photo made it clear that the majority of the trees were gone.

This is the 2008 aerial of the parcel in Jono Miller’s neighborhood. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
This is the same parcel as seen in 2018. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The very first speaker, Flo Entler, pointed out that she has lived in the city for 33 years. “A tree is not just a tree,” she said. “A tree cleans our area by turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. … A tree improves our quality of life. … Trees work hard to right our wrongs.”

In Arlington Park, Entler emphasized, trees are “under attack by developers. We are losing our canopy to developers.”

David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, told the commissioners that the board of that organization “feels that trees are vitally important.

“I would urge you to move on this [list of recommendations] today,” Lough added.

This is a photo that Flo Entler showed the commissioners, to indicate the size of one tree removed in her neighborhood. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In the Rosemary District, where he lives, he continued, he and city Arborist Miller have counted more than 230 trees that have been removed in the past two years.

Mary Pryce, another Arlington Park resident, said, “I’m appalled at the number of oak trees pulled down.” Four out of five homes on Hyde Park Street are teardowns, she added. “Beautiful oaks” are being replaced by trees with 3-inch diameters. “How long will that take for that mighty tree to grow? We need roots. … Roots are important for soil,” and they protect against soil erosion, she noted. “Builders don’t care about a $200 fine or even a $1,000 fine if they are going to tear down one home and replace it with four or five homes,” she said. “They’ll just tear down those trees.”

Pryce also showed the commissioners a photo of a stump of a mature tree that was taken down in her neighborhood. An owl has been seen sitting on that stump at night, she added, “wondering what happened to [its] tree.”

This is a photo shown to the commissioners on Feb. 22, referencing the owl that lost its tree. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“The importance of trees is fundamental to the walkability of our area,” Jim Lampl told the board members, “especially because of the heat on the sidewalk. “I like the concept of replacing inch for inch [for mitigation purposes],” he continued. “Why don’t we talk about … [replacing] canopy for canopy.”

The last speaker, Kelly Franklin, said, “If we’re going to selfishly save ourselves and our planet, we need the right trees in the right places. … There’s no earthly reason why this City Commission shouldn’t follow the will of its citizens and improve the tree ordinance. … Sarasota citizens love trees,” she added, “so preserving the canopy we have and growing new life in our tree desert is a winning issue with voters.”