County Commission directs staff to research earlier Urban Forestry Master Plan

An image from a Sarasota County Natural Resources Department presentation touts some of the benefits trees provide to a community.

Concerned about duplicating work already completed on a Sarasota County Urban Forestry Master Plan, the County Commission voted unanimously June 5 not to launch a new initiative until staff had researched the earlier undertaking.

Commissioner Nora Patterson’s motion also directed staff to research urban forestry master plans that had been vetted in other communities, such as Gainesville, and bring that information back to the board for discussion.

Rachel Herman, project scientist in the county’s Natural Resources Department, appeared before the commission during its regular meeting in Venice June 5 to discuss a new urban forestry master plan. She noted that Chris Hice, chairman of the Sarasota Tree Advisory Council, had suggested the commission explore the possibility of developing such a plan when he presented the STAC’s annual report on Feb. 22.

A memo to the County Commission, prepared May 22, pointed out that as a result of Hice’s comments, the commission had directed staff to develop a presentation about what the appropriate scope should be for such a plan, how much it would cost to develop the plan and how long the effort would take.

Herman told the board June 5 that an urban forestry management plan helps determine how trees in developed areas can be sustained and how they can provide maximum environmental and community benefits while contributing to a sense of place and community aesthetics.

The STAC had researched best practices for such plans, Herman said, and staff had looked into the work on urban forestry plans prepared in Manatee County; the City of Bradenton; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Alexandria, Va.

Herman said staff estimated the expense for a Sarasota County plan would be about $50,000.

“My concern is that we don’t reinvent the wheel,” Commissioner Joe Barbetta said.

When Demetra McBride was manager of urban forestry for Sarasota County, he added, her task was to develop an urban forestry master plan. “There was some pushback by the prior administration,” Barbetta said, “but I thought she got a lot of work done.”

McBride left the county in October 2010. Barbetta said he believed county staff could reach her in California.

“I don’t want to spend any money if we don’t have to,” he added.

Moreover, Barbetta said he thought both Winter Park and Gainesville had good urban forestry master plans, so staff also should check into those.

Patterson then made a motion to direct staff to proceed with the scope of development for a new Sarasota County plan and bring a fully vetted cost estimate back to the board. The motion included direction for staff to examine McBride’s research and plans from other communities.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton seconded the motion, adding that McBride “was a very well-qualified individual.”

However, Chairwoman Christine Robinson said she would oppose the motion.

Referring to Herman’s mention of “strategies to achieve goals” among possible contents for the new plan, Robinson said the commissioners needed to provide direction to staff on such language. Robinson added that she was worried about “possibly … creating another ball of regulations … We need to not waste any money on staff time when we should be setting the parameters for this entire plan.”

Patterson said, “I thought I was putting faith in staff to go back and re-examine [McBride’s work] and see if we had a plan that was all but complete.”

When Patterson then said she was unsure whether to amend her original motion, Robinson suggested the board go ahead and vote on it. That motion failed 2-3, with Robinson, Barbetta and Carolyn Mason voting against it.

Patterson then made the new motion to direct staff to research McBride’s efforts and urban forestry plans in other communities.

Details of the presentation

In her presentation to the County Commission, Herman pointed to existing environmental policy for Sarasota County that says, “The County shall develop the Master Urban Forestry Plan which includes a Board approved tree canopy coverage goal for the existing and future urban forest, located within the urban service boundary, of 40 percent. The plan shall include other appropriate objectives and policies for the conservation and enhancement of the existing and future urban forest based upon the results of the Urban Ecosystem Analysis, and other relevant data.”

Along with “strategies to achieve goals,” Herman said the following were among possible contents for a county urban forestry master plan:

• Inventory of existing initiatives and programs.

• Community vision for urban forest, trees and associated benefits.

• Goal setting to realize the vision.

• Data components informing goals.

• Emphasis on ecosystem.

• Public outreach and education.

• Street Tree Design Manual.

• Analysis of other master plans and points of integration.

• Periodic evaluation, data monitoring and update schedule.

Herman also identified the following stakeholders for the plan: Sarasota County’s municipalities (Town of Longboat Key, City of Sarasota, City of Venice and City of North Port); landscape architects and arboriculture professionals; planning and design professionals and local developers; the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange; interested citizens and homeowners association representatives; and Florida Power & Light Co.