City Commission splits 3-2 on makeup of proposed advisory committee that will handle tree issues

Commissioners Ahearn-Koch and Shaw voice concerns that including developers or developers’ representatives would lead to conflicts of interest

Steve Seidensticker, co-owner of Louies Modern restaurant on Palm Avenue, recently complained to the City Commission about the damage to the sidewalk by roots of the gumbo limbo trees outside the dining establishment. Patrons have tripped, he said, which can lead to injuries. Image from Google Maps

On a 3-2 vote, the Sarasota City Commission this week directed the Neighborhood and Development Services Department staff to work with the city attorney to craft a resolution regarding the make-up and duties of a Tree Advisory Committee.

The board’s primary responsibility will be to offer recommendations about possible modifications of the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance.

Tim Litchet, director of the Neighborhood and Development Services Department, told the board he would recommend the committee be given a maximum of 12 months to complete its work. His experience, he added, is that members of such groups work better if they know they are on a schedule.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown also noted of the group members, “They’ll be working in the sunshine … open and transparent,” with the public welcome to attend sessions.

Brown also told the commissioners that the group would report to it according to whatever schedule they approve — quarterly, or monthly, for example.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown. File photo

Among issues Litchet specifically called for the committee to address are the following:

  • How the city should deal with residents who wish to remove healthy trees to re-landscape their private property.
  • How it should handle situations in which healthy trees on public rights of way are causing safety hazards, such as breaking up sidewalks because of root growth.
  • The existing sliding scale for tree mitigation standards, with a determination of whether changes are needed.
  • The fees for tree removal and mitigation, with determinations about fairness and about whether different standards should apply to residential situations and commercial projects.
  • Whether certain types of invasive species should be subject to the same removal criteria as native trees.

Litchet also recommended that a total of $10,000 be set aside for the work of the committee. He pointed out that staff expenses — including production of city maps and research — would total about $5,000, while the same amount probably would be needed for legal notices of any proposed zoning text amendments that result from the group’s work. Those suggested changes to city law would have to be heard by the Planning Board and the City Commission.

Balance of interests

Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Willie Shaw voiced disagreement with Litchet’s proposal regarding the committee’s size of and membership.

Basing his suggestions on discussions the City Commission held during its June 19 regular meeting, Litchet proposed that the Tree Advisory Committee have seven members: two neighborhood representatives; two development interest representatives; one downtown core resident; one Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce representative or one downtown core merchant; and one landscape architect or arborist, with all to be approved by majority votes of the commission.

Ahearn-Koch noted her “very serious concern” that the people representing developers and the Chamber of Commerce would end up having to recuse themselves because of conflicts of interest related to their work or their clients.
Shaw concurred. “Most developers don’t live here,” he said. “They come and go.” Furthermore, he continued, “sometimes those voices can be a bit overpowering with these committees.”
“I disagree,” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert replied. “I think this looks balanced,” she said of Litchet’s recommendations. “I think you have to have all interests represented, not just one side of the argument.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch. Image from her campaign website

Ahearn-Koch pointed out that if the commission were to create a committee with five seats — with one set aside for an arborist — developers could apply for the positions.

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie reminded her colleagues that they had decided to appoint this advisory committee because they themselves do not have sufficient expertise on trees. She joined Alpert in supporting Litchet’s recommendations.

Commissioner Hagen Brody also talked of the need for “different interests” on the committee. Additionally, he proposed the City Commission call for the members to reach unanimity in their recommendations. “That will also force them to give a little bit. However, none of his colleagues endorsed that suggestion.

Freeland Eddie pointed out that the city’s Planning Board often takes 3-2 votes, and the city commissioners ask questions to learn the reasons for those minority views.

“It’s going to be difficult to find people that are just totally objective,” Litchet told the commissioners. “We need to have some balanced representation.”

Still, Litchet added, he would work with whatever committee make-up they approved.

The two people who signed up to address the board during the discussion also had opposing views on the representation of members. Nathan Wilson, an Arlington Park resident, said he felt some developers or people who represent business interests could be objective. Conversely, attorney Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth Now, agreed with Ahearn-Koch and warned the commissioners “not to institutionalize conflicts of interest.”

The goal of a public official, he added, is to do what is best for the public.

Brody ultimately made the motion to approve Litchet’s recommendations for the representatives on the committee, with Freeland Eddie seconding it.