On series of votes, City Commission agrees to proceed with more in-depth review of proposed new regulations regarding tree protection and property owners’ rights

Impact of new state law one factor for consideration as new zoning text amendments are drafted

Aerial views show the Central Avenue/Cocoanut Avenue area of the city of Sarasota in 1940 (left) and 2019, as seen with the Google Earth app. In 70 years, Michael Halflants, the Tree Advisory Committee chair, says, ‘You can still see the streets. The streets do not have any cover over them.’ Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Following a July 1 discussion that lasted close to 90 minutes, the Sarasota City Commission took a series of unanimous votes designed to improve the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance and create a pilot program to encourage the care of new trees planted by residents on city right of way.

One vote authorized the city’s Tree Advisory Committee (TAC) to conduct perhaps a couple more meetings to tweak motions on a list of 25 the members of the group had proposed as amendments to the Tree Protection Ordinance. The committee held 24 meetings as it crafted those proposals, Tim Litchet, director of the city’s Development Services Department, told the commissioners.

City commissioners with concerns about any of the 25 motions that they did not raise on July 1 were asked to provide their comments to staff within the next six weeks.

Further, staff will work on arranging for an expert on urban forestry programs to make a presentation to the commission, as the TAC has recommended such a program for the city.

This is an image Tree Advisory Committee representatives showed the City Commission on July 1, depicting how canopy trees can transform a street. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then, after those steps have been taken, staff will work with the Office of the City Attorney to draft an amended Tree Protection Ordinance so the commission can review the document. Mayor Liz Alpert suggested that staff schedule a special meeting for that review, as it could take two to three hours.

After that board session, Litchet said, staff could schedule the necessary city Planning Board hearings on proposed zoning text amendments involving the Tree Protection Ordinance.

Also upon Litchet’s recommendation, the commissioners agreed that as the TAC members conduct their extra meetings, they will consider any changes in their proposed motions necessary to reflect a new state law that went into effect on July 1.

Jono Miller, retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida, alerted the commissioners to the fact that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1159.

That new law says that a local government “may not require a permit, application, notice, fee, or fine for the pruning, trimming, or removal of a tree on residential property” under certain circumstances. Among the latter are if the property owner has determined that the tree “is damaged, diseased, pest infested, or presents a danger to others or property as a result of a tropical storm watch or warning, tropical storm, hurricane watch or warning, hurricane, or declared state of emergency.” Before having a tree taken down, the property owner must obtain from “an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture documentation that the tree is damaged, diseased, pest infested, or presents danger to others or property.”

Moreover, the law says a local government cannot require a property owner to replant a tree that has been removed for any of the above reasons.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie asked whether the new law makes it necessary for a homeowner planning to remove a tree to notify the city of that action by letter.

Mark Miller, the city’s senior arborist, told her, “We don’t know.”

However, he added, if the city receives a report of a tree being removed by a homeowner — or staff becomes aware of such a situation — he believed the homeowner could be asked to show staff a copy of the arborist’s certification for the work.

During the discussion of the proposed motions, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch took the opportunity to compliment the TAC members for recommending that more species be added to the list for consideration for designation as Grand Trees, whose protection the existing city ordinance requires.

The Grand Tree species would be live oak, sand live oak, slash pine, longleaf pine and Southern red cedar. Any of the trees would have to have to meet or exceed a specific diameter measurement standard to be considered Grand Trees.

Other concerns

(From left) City Senior Arborist Mark Miller, TAC Vice Chair Michael Gilkey Jr., TAC Chair Michael Halflants and Tim Litchet, director of Development Services, appear before the City Commission on July 1. News Leader image

Another concern Freeland Eddie raised about the 25 proposed motions was related to their impact on the city’s goal of encouraging affordable or workforce housing projects.

Referencing proposed Motion 21, she said that some vacant city lots that would be appropriate for such developments have mature trees. “These rules could be barriers or impediments,” she added, to such construction. “That’s my most significant complaint [with the TAC’s proposals].”

Litchet responded that the TAC has not suggested any changes to the affordable housing incentives in regard to trees. “We have some fairly good … provisions … in our code right now,” he added, to encourage affordable housing projects.

Freeland Eddie further questioned proposed Motion No. 5, which says, “Removal of a healthy right-of-way tree for the purpose of improving sight view corridors or making signage more visible does not qualify as a criterion for granting a tree removal permit.”

“I think that’s a safety issue,” she said of trees in rights of way.

This is the TAC proposed Motion No. 18. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Michael Gilkey Jr., vice chair of the TAC, replied that the motion would not prevent the removal of trees in rights of way when the trees impede motorists’ lines of sight.

Michael Halflants, the TAC chair, pointed out that members of the committee are aware of complaints about trees blocking commercial signs or residents’ views of the bay, for examples. Trees could not be removed to ameliorate those situations, he added.

Freeland Eddie replied that she believes the owner of a commercial business should have the right to market that business, without a tree obstructing the view of signage.

Litchet told her staff and the TAC would tweak the language of that motion.

The pilot program

This TAC proposed motion lists undesirable tree species. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

As for the proposed pilot program for residents planting trees in the city rights of way: City resident Lou Costa has volunteered to manage the initiative.

“This is how Bird Key planted 400 trees over an 8 year period with a survival rate of 98.5%,” Costa wrote in the pilot program proposal.

Along with Costa, city residents Norm Dumaine, president of Glen Oaks Estates; Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association; and Nathan Wilson, past president of the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association, worked with Costa on the proposal, according to materials provided to the commission in advance of the July 1 meeting.

The proposal points out, “The city established a program for developers to plant mitigation trees offsite,” with the trees to be given to residents who apply for them. Some residents still have been waiting for their trees since 2017, the proposal notes.

“In the meantime,” it says, “the [city’s] Tree Replacement Fund has grown to $275,000.”

Among problems with the program that need to be resolved, the proposal continues, are the failure of trees planted by residents to survive. Costa told the commissioners that some people just fail to care for the trees; they do not water them, for example.

The goal of the pilot program, the proposal says, is to “encourage homeowners with an incentive to plant canopy trees in the right-of-way with the least amount of city responsibility and red tape.”

The proposal calls for the city to set aside $50,000 of the Tree Replacement Fund for the pilot program. A homeowner wishing to participate in the initiative would have to pay a minimum of $100 to do so, and the tree would have to be planted “in accordance with ‘right tree, right location’ philosophy.”

The tree would become the property and responsibility of the homeowner.

If the tree thrives, the city would pay the homeowner up to $500 as an incentive for keeping the tree healthy.

This is the proposed new definition for Grand Trees. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Selections would be limited to canopy trees and “understory” trees delineated in the TAC’s proposed Motion 11. Among the understory trees are the pink trumpet, silver trumpet, holly, crape myrtle, buttonwood, pigeon plum, black olive and fringe tree.

Residents would have to water the trees and prune them, the proposal notes. No resident could ask for more than two trees per lot per year.

If a tree could not be planted in the city right of way adjoining the resident’s property, the proposal says, then the planting would be allowed within 10 feet of the right of way.

After 50 trees have been planted, the proposal continues, the program will be reviewed to determine whether it should be discontinued or made a long-term city initiative.