City Commission authorizes process to change tree mitigation standards

Zoning Code amendment would require developers to replace the same number of caliper inches of trees they had to remove

Oaks are commonplace in Sarasota. News Leader photo

As a result of the extensive new development in the city of Sarasota’s Rosemary District, 3,379 caliper inches of mature trees will be removed, an Arlington Park resident and tree advocate told the Sarasota City Commission this week.

“Caliper inches” refers to a tree’s diameter.

The figure was based on research undertaken by the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association (DSCA) , Nathan Wilson explained to the board during its regular meeting on Jan. 3.

Extrapolating from the measurements of seven trees, Wilson noted, the research showed that trees provided 491,000 square feet of canopy — the equivalent of covering 8.5 football fields — in the Rosemary District. “This is just one neighborhood,” he added.

Yet, because of the 10 major projects underway, he continued, “the loss of tree canopy coverage is just staggering.” Half the trees have been cut down, he told the board.

At the urging of Patrick Gannon, a city Planning Board member and president of the DSCA; Wilson; and two other residents, the commissioners voted unanimously to authorize a process designed to increase the city’s tree mitigation standards in regard to new construction.

The proposal for the Zoning Code amendment originated with Gannon, which prompted commissioner discussion during the Dec. 5, 2016 regular meeting, Tim Litchet, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department, pointed out.

“I believe this is a fairly simple request,” Litchet told the board at the outset of his presentation.

A graphic shows the Rosemary District boundaries in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

Formally, city staff will work on a Zoning Code amendment that would require the replacement of the same number of caliper inches of trees removed for a project. As Litchet explained it, if a developer needed to take out a tree with a 20-inch diameter, the current code allows for mitigation to entail the planting of two trees, each with a 5-inch diameter. The amendment would make it necessary for the developer to add back the total of 20 inches lost.

The current standard in the code is a sliding scale based on the size of the tree removed, Litchet wrote in a memo to the board in advance of the Jan. 3 meeting.

Marcella Levin listens as Patrick Gannon addresses the board. News Leader photo

If the amendment ultimately wins approval, Litchet told the board during the session, “we’re going to have to decide minimum sizes of trees [that may be planted as replacements].”

The suggested minimum for any replacement tree is a 3-inch caliper, the draft language says. The amendment would apply in situations where trees on a development site have diameters of 4.5 or more inches.

“It takes longer for [smaller] trees to get to the maturity of a 20-inch tree,” Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie made the motion to authorize staff to proceed with work on the amendment; Commissioner Liz Alpert seconded it. They then agreed to a friendly amendment offered by Commissioner Susan Chapman, which Wilson had suggested in an email. It called for another tweak that would enable a developer to undertake tree mitigation not just on private property within 1,000 feet of the site where a tree was removed but within the entire boundary of the neighborhood where a project is located.

In a Dec. 23, 2016 email to Chapman, Wilson wrote, “I have started a list in my neighborhood and have almost twenty people already that are willing to accept trees. The 1000 foot rule is a little constricting …”

Nathan Wilson. News Leader photo

In other words, Litchet said, a tree removed for a project in Arlington Park could be replaced by the planting of a tree anywhere within that neighborhood.

Freeland Eddie initially said she was wary of agreeing to Chapman’s friendly amendment because of lack of public notice about that facet of the proposed new standards, but City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed to the opportunities members of the public will have to consider it.

Litchet earlier told the board he did not feel Wilson’s suggestion would be controversial. Given the board’s Jan. 3 approval, the zoning code amendment will go through the normal process of city Development Review Committee approval and then public hearings before the Planning Board and the City Commission, Litchet said later.

Alpert did win clarification from Litchet that the proposed amendment still would allow developers of projects with affordable housing to adhere to a standard requiring replacement trees to represent 50% of the caliper inches of all trees removed. That applies to housing for families making less than 80% of the county’s median income, the code says.

The breadth of research

During his public comments on Jan. 3, Gannon — who identified himself as a new candidate for the March City Commission election — explained that he represents 6,000 residents in the DSCA, and they are in favor of the Zoning Code amendment.

He pointed out that the aspiration of the environmental chapter of the city’s Comprehensive Plan is for tree canopy coverage in the municipal limits to reach the 40% threshold proposed by Sarasota County. A 2013 study showed the level at that time was 32%, Gannon added, “so you have a long-stretch goal to achieve that.”

The situation in the Rosemary District has been exacerbated by the zoning of that area, he continued, which allows for zero setback for new projects.

Tim Litchet. News Leader photo

Under the current code, Gannon said, the developers would have to plant 954 new trees to make up for those removed. One developer plans enhanced mitigation, he noted, so that will bring the number close to 1,000.

Nonetheless, Gannon pointed out, “we’re losing about 72% of the tree canopy under the current code.”

A third speaker, Marcella Levin, told the board, “I believe it’s necessary to speak up to right a wrong, and there is something wrong with the way trees are treated in our community.”

Wilson pointed out at the end of his remarks that Arbor Day in Florida will be observed on Jan. 20. He was hopeful, he said, that the day would be marked by the planting of trees in the city.