Higher fees proposed for removal of Grand Trees that won’t be replaced on county construction sites

Commissioner Cutsinger seeking loosening of Grand Tree protections for affordable housing projects

On the morning of April 11, Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith read a proclamation marking April 28 as Arbor Day in the county.

That proclamation focused on the value of trees as a renewable resource that provides oxygen, reduces erosion and improves air and water quality.

Trees not only beautify the county, the proclamation continued, but they also increase property values, as documented by higher sales for parcels with trees, compared to those without them.

Trees, Smith read, make the county “a more desirable place to live, work and play.”

He recognized staff members of the county’s Environmental Protection Division and the county’s University of Florida/Institute of Agricultural and Food Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension in the county, who added their own information about the importance of planting and preserving trees.

Just a short while later, during the board members’ reports, Smith noted that, prior to the commissioners’ Jan. 31 vote on amendments to the county’s Tree Code, the Sarasota Tree Advisory Council (STAC) had proposed that the county double the fees related to the removal of Grand Trees from sites planned for development, if those trees were not replaced.

Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, told the commissioners during that hearing that the STAC had submitted a letter to them — a copy of which she provided each commissioner — that called for a developer working on a project on an existing lot to pay $400 for each inch of diameter at breast height (DBH) of a Grand Tree removed but not replaced on the site. For such a situation involving a new lot, the fee would be $800.

A county flyer explains, “Grand Trees are determined by adding points calculated for the diameter, height and spread of a tree together.” The flyer provides a formula for that calculation and lists the minimum number of points needed for a tree of a specific species to be considered a Grand Tree. For example, a live oak would have to have at least 100 points, while a Southern magnolia would need only 80. Chapter 54, Article XVIII, of the County Code contains all of the county’s provisions regarding tree protections.

Wayne Grubbs, chair of the STAC, wrote in the Jan. 25 letter, “The consensus of the [advisory council] is that the existing fee structures are very low in comparison to the current cost of construction and development along with the eventual income of the developed property. That sets up a financial environment where the current fees are not enough of a financial incentive to significantly discourage the removal of Grand Trees.”

During his April 11 remarks, Smith pointed out, “At that time, I thought that [doubling of fees] was a good idea, but I didn’t ask you all for your thoughts.”

He added that, “in light of the proclamation this morning,” he felt the fees should be doubled.

Chair Ron Cutsinger suggested that direction to staff to research Smith’s proposal could be a “board assignment,” with the resulting written report provided to the commissioners.

Smith indicated that that would be fine, adding, “However we can make it go forward.”

Then Cutsinger elaborated upon the request, saying that staff at the same time could look into situations involving construction of affordable housing units. Perhaps the county’s fees for removal of Grand Trees on sites of such projects could be reduced, he said.

He had received a call from a developer of affordable housing, Cutsinger explained. That person had had to pay the county a fee so he could cut down a Grand Tree on land where an affordable housing development was planned, even though the tree’s removal was necessary to make the construction fit on the site.

“It was right where the building had to go,” Cutsinger added of the tree. “It was a very expensive process.”

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis responded, “We can make that part of the board assignment.”

Then Smith noted that he had received email from an individual who had had to pay a fee to remove an unhealthy tree, plus the expense of taking it down, even though the tree was endangering property. Therefore, Smith proposed that research into that issue also be incorporated into the assignment.

After checking for any further comments from the other board members, Cutsinger told Lewis, “I think we have consensus [on the request for the report].”

An item on the agenda for the board’s regular meeting this week — on April 25 — said the board assignment should be completed for distribution to the commissioners by May 11.