County staff recommends no further changes to the Trees Ordinance

County commissioners had sought an in-depth staff review of existing regulations to prevent a ‘piecemeal approach’ in handling future potential problems

The county has numerous Canopy Roads. File photo
The county has numerous Canopy Roads. File photo

While the Sarasota County Commission earlier this year revised its Trees Ordinance to prevent a recurrence of a situation in which a Siesta Key homeowners association became embroiled last year, a follow-up commission request for potential further tweaking of the regulations has ended in staff recommending no further changes, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

A staff report completed in late February points out that in reviewing code requirements for trees in four neighboring counties and two local cities, county staff found, “In each case, healthy trees are protected and the removal of trees requires justification. None of the reviewed jurisdictions included specific criteria within their codes regarding the removal and replacement of healthy trees that do not meet permitting criteria.”

Commissioner Christine Robinson, who requested the board assignment, voiced some disappointment with the report in a recent interview with the News Leader. “I’m always interested in creating codes that apply a level of commonsense,” she pointed out. “It seems there is no commonsense to our tree code right now.”

On Dec. 8, 2015, the County Commission upheld an appeal by the Siesta Isles Association, which was stopped in its tracks in a beautification project last fall when county staff learned the organization was removing trees in county right of way in medians at entrances to the neighborhood. The association planned to replace them with new royal palms.

Siesta Isles Association President Tony Romanus pointed out to the commission that most of the species targeted for removal were considered invasive under county guidelines. Additionally, he said, the goal was to put in 10 new trees to replace eight in the landscaping of the right of way medians on Shadow Lawn Way and Beach Way Drive.

Although the association had won a county Neighborhood Initiative Grant Program award for the work, county staff abruptly stopped the project because the organization had not obtained a permit to remove trees.

Tony Romanus. File photo
Tony Romanus. File photo

A resulting public hearing on Jan. 26 led to the county remedies that were designed to guard against future potential situations like the one Siesta Isles faced: Staff implemented a change in the Neighborhood Initiative Grant Program, while the board tweaked the Trees Ordinance to encompass landscaping considerations in the section dealing with tree-removal exemptions.

Those changes still left open the potential for problems, Robinson pointed out at the time, especially in regard to replacing one tree with several new ones. Commissioner Carolyn Mason concurred with Robinson that the board’s goal should be to avoid “a piecemeal approach” in resolving issues with the Trees Ordinance. As a result, the board asked for the full staff report on further possible modifications to the regulations.

The report

Dated Feb. 22, the report points out that the Siesta Isles case was the first appeal regarding the Trees Ordinance in more than 20 years.

“Sarasota County has long valued trees for the variety of benefits they provide to our community,” the report says. As a result, it continues, the county marked its 25th year as a Tree City USA in 2015. That distinction comes from the Arbor Day Foundation.

In regard to tree replacement, the report continues, the county ordinance already provides for numerous exemptions. For example, it says, in the case of an owner-occupied, single-family residence, one or more trees can be replaced on the property without the need for a permit, “provided the tree is not a designated grand tree or located within a Canopy Road Protection Zone.”

Other exemptions involve public road and utilities projects, the report continues, and removal of exotic species. The county regulations also provide for emergency situations, the report notes.

A Tree City USA presentation prepared by the Arbor Foundation addresses the value of trees. Image from the Arbor Foundation website
A Tree City USA presentation prepared by the Arbor Foundation addresses the value of trees. Image from the Arbor Foundation website

Because of the existing language in the ordinance for such situations, the report continues, staff focused on permitting criteria for removal of trees. The regulations cite six criteria that can be used to justify a permit for proposed tree replacement and/or removal, the report notes. Among those are that the trees pose a safety hazard to pedestrians or vehicular traffic; they present a safety hazard to people, buildings or vehicles; they completely prevent access to a lot; and they are diseased or weakened by age, storm damage, fire or other types of injuries.

“The principles of avoidance first and then minimization of adverse impacts to trees are considered during the permitting review and may require an applicant to consider alternatives to avoid or minimize tree impacts,” the report explains. “A permit is not granted to replace or remove a tree if the hazard can be abated by any other reasonable means,” it adds.

Further, in any case in which a tree permit has been granted and a built-in exemption does not exist, the report continues, “a certain minimum number of trees is required … based on square footage areas on the property or development.” In most cases, the standard is at least one tree for each 2,000 square feet of the parcel for which the permit has been issued, the report adds.

The Arbor Foundation lists numerous benefits of trees in a community. Image from the Foundation website
The Arbor Foundation lists numerous benefits of trees in a community. Image from the Foundation website

In the case of tree replacement, it continues, standards call for planting of trees with “at least equal shade potential and characteristics comparable to those of the removed trees”; a minimum height of 8 feet and a trunk diameter of at least 2 inches at the time of planting; the potential for a crown of at least 15 feet; and use of species on the county’s approved list, the report explains.

The ordinance does not include criteria for evaluating the “net environmental benefit” in cases in which trees are removed and then replaced with an equal or greater number of new trees, the report points out, saying “it is challenging to scientifically quantify added benefits from additional trees that [meet] everyone’s expectations.”

For example, the report notes, “Different species provide differing benefits given their unique qualities and characteristics …”

The staff report explains concerns about subjectivity in tree-removal situations. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The staff report explains concerns about subjectivity in tree-removal situations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Because of the complexities of such situations “and [the fact that] no quantifiable best practice [exists] for this concept,” the report adds that developing the necessary framework “would likely include subjective criteria” and increase the odds of differing perspectives between applicants and county staff, “which would likely lead to adversarial customer interactions.”

In their research, the report says, staff members reviewed the tree code requirements for Collier, Lee, Charlotte and Manatee counties as well as those for the Cities of Sarasota and North Port.

In the interview with the News Leader, Robinson pointed out that she has gained some hope of future changes to the ordinance after reviewing minutes of Sarasota Tree Advisory Council (STAC) meetings. Its members have been examining the Trees Ordinance for possible changes, she noted.

The minutes of that advisory board’s Feb. 11 session says the members discussed the desire to review the county’s landscape code “to see if there is an incentive in it to plant more trees or leave trees in place.”

“So I’m interested in seeing what they produce,” Robinson added. Perhaps “’windows of opportunity’” will result from that process, she said.