On split vote, Sarasota city commissioners eliminate option of palm trees as potential replacements citywide for canopy trees that are removed

Mayor Arroyo and Brody oppose latest changes in regulations that will go into effect June 15

A photo emailed to the city commissioners on April 28 shows more tree stumps in the Arlington Park neighborhood, to make way for more residential development. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On a split vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission reversed course on its March vote to adopt most of the changes that its Tree Advisory Committee (TAC) had recommended for the city’s tree ordinance.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch’s May 2 motion called for deleting the option of planting palms as mitigation for removal of canopy trees. That would apply citywide. The majority of her colleagues approved the use of palms when they approved the revised ordinance on its first reading, conducted on March 21.

No exception will be made for the city’s barrier islands. The previous version of the ordinance allowed palms to be used for mitigation purposes just on the islands, based on consideration that palms tend to fare well in the coastal environment, with its salt air and sandier soil.

Ahearn-Koch also called for the inclusion of two changes in the revised ordinance. First, the list of prohibited trees — based on state law — will be separate from the list of undesirable trees.

Second, the effective date of the ordinance will be June 15. Assistant City Attorney Joe Mladinich, who worked with the TAC during its review of the city’s tree regulations, pointed out that developers had “put in significant work” on projects already in the pipeline, using the existing tree ordinance. Allowing them extra time to complete the city approval process would be appropriate, he suggested.

One other proposal staff had offered no longer was necessary, based on Ahearn-Koch’s motion.

It would have corrected what Kevin McAndrew, general manager of the city’s Development Services Department, called “unintended outcomes” of the board’s prior vote.

A chart in the proposed ordinance that the commissioners considered in March called for planting up to three trees to replace a canopy tree that had been removed. The number would depend on the size of the canopy tree, according to that chart. For a tree with a diameter between 4 inches and 15 inches at breast height, only one new canopy tree with a minimum diameter of 3 inches would have been needed. For a canopy tree with a diameter of more than 30 inches, three, 3-inch canopy trees would have had to be planted.

The same ratios would have been applied for species that are not canopy trees, the chart showed, but the minimum caliper inches of diameter required would have been 2 instead of 3.

This is a chart that City Manager Marlon Brown showed the commissioners, with an extra column for the number of palms proposed in mitigating the removal of a canopy tree. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

However, the March 21 version of the ordinance that the commissioner approved would have resulted in significantly less canopy, McAndrew pointed out on May 2.

Therefore, staff proposed the planting of three times as many palms to replace canopy trees, depending on the size of the canopy trees.

When Commissioner Hagen Brody asked for clarification that the planting of nine palms could be required to make up for the removal of one canopy tree with a diameter of more than 30 inches at breast height, Assistant City Attorney Mladinich affirmed that that was the recommendation.

“That seems like a lot of palm trees for a house or yard,” Brody replied.

Commissioner Hagen Brody. News Leader image

Brody further accused staff of advocating for that change, which he said was “the opposite of the commission’s direction from the last meeting.”

When McAndrew started to respond that staff was not advocating for the revision, Brody interrupted him, saying, “We’re not idiots. I think we can understand the changes that you’ve made.”

City Manager Marlon Brown then pointed out that, between the initial adoption of a city ordinance and the final vote, if staff finds issues that could be problematic, it is staff’s obligation to bring those to the board members’ attention.

Ultimately, Brown emphasized, policy decisions are left to the commissioners.

Brown also told the commissioners that, with the final vote on May 2, staff plans an educational process targeted at vendors who sell trees.

The value of canopy trees

Commissioner Liz Alpert seconded Ahearn-Koch’s May 2 motion, and Vice Mayor Kyle Battie joined them in approving it.

However, after that vote, Ahearn-Koch won no support for a motion to adjust city fees for tree removal and mitigation, as the TAC also had proposed. Thus, the existing fees will remain in effect.

In explaining her motion on the revised tree regulations, Ahearn-Koch stressed, “The idea of this ordinance is to create canopy, protect our current canopy,” and ensure the planting of a wide variety of trees in the future.

Further, she pointed out, a palm “doesn’t have the environmental impacts that we’re hoping to get as a city.” That was why she did not believe such trees should be allowed for mitigation purposes, she added. Nonetheless, she said, the revised ordinance “doesn’t preclude anybody from planting a palm tree.”

In spite of objections by Mayor Erik Arroyo, the revised regulations also add slash pines, longleaf pines and Southern red cedars of certain sizes as grand trees if they are of specific sizes.

A live or sand oak must have a diameter of 24 inches or greater at breast height to qualify; for the other species, the measurement must be 20 inches or greater. Removal of any grand tree on public or private property is prohibited, except under certain circumstances, including if such a tree “is in “an advanced state of decline, as determined by a city-approved certified arborist or state-registered landscape architect.”

This is a slash pine. Image courtesy of the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS)

Previously, city regulations allowed only live oaks and sand live oaks to be designated grand trees.

On May 2, Arroyo provided his colleagues a copy of a University of Florida research paper that discussed the propensity of pines to fare more poorly in storm events than other trees. Among the facts in that document, Arroyo said, was the fact that pines can snap near the ground.

Professional arborist Phil Smith of Sarasota also discussed that point in public comments on May 2, referencing information he had received that morning about the destruction of more than 600,000 trees as a result of 140-mph winds that endured for about 70 minutes during a storm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. When choosing trees for canopy, Smith told the commissioners, the focus should be on those that have a higher level of resistance to wind damage.

Arroyo told his colleagues he could not support Ahearn-Koch’s motion. “I believe this [revised ordinance] is more burdensome, especially on our … poorer neighborhoods.”

In explaining her support for Ahearn-Koch’s motion, Alpert said, “One of the saddest things” she sees when she goes into a new subdivision is “it’s just been stripped bare of trees.” Perhaps in 20 or 25 years new canopy will have materialized in those neighborhoods, she continued. Yet, in the meantime, Alpert said, “It looks hot; it looks barren. … With the rising temperatures worldwide,” more canopy perhaps can enable people to survive climate change, she indicated.

Various views on palms

Earlier during the discussion, Commissioner Brody said, “Having grown up here I don’t understand the war against palm trees. We live in a tropical community.”
He then referenced public comments that Mary Fuerst, chair of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection advisory board, who also was on the TAC, had made that morning.

Fuerst talked of the fact that only palms line Lemon Avenue, down which she walked that morning to reach City Hall. “It was just brutal, and that was at 8:30 in the morning.”

Brody emphasized the fact that the City Commission called for the palms on Lemon Avenue. “They’re beautiful,” he said. “I wholeheartedly want to make sure that our residents on the mainland can utilize palm trees if they want,” for mitigation purposes, Brody added.

Yet, Vice Mayor Battie concurred with Fuerst’s remarks about Lemon Avenue.

Battie also referenced comments made that morning by David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association. Lough noted that, as a result of all the new development in the Rosemary District, close to 400 trees soon will have been removed. (New trees will be planted in some areas of that community, Lough acknowledged, though a number of them will be in courtyards where they will not provide shade to the public.)

Vice Mayor Kyle Battie. File image

“There’s hardly any canopy … in the Rosemary District,” Battie pointed out. “Palm trees look great, but [the residents] need canopy over there.”
Battie added that the district has a “large elderly population,” and it is not good for the health of those individuals to walk along the sidewalks without shade.

At first, Battie did voice support for the idea of keeping the provision of the existing ordinance that allowed for palms to be used as mitigation trees when canopy trees are removed on the barrier islands.

Then Senior City Arborist Mark Miller explained that canopy trees can grow just as well on the barrier islands. When the city extended the Multi-Use Recreational Trail (MURT) to Coon Key, Miller said, city staff removed Australian pines. “We planted a bunch of trees,” he continued. “So there are [other species, besides palms] that grow, thrive and survive in that environment.”

“I would prefer to see the islands have to plant canopy trees,” Miller added.

Prohibited trees

Discussion did arise again on May 2 in regard to the revised ordinance’s separate list of trees whose planting is prohibited in the city.  The earlier version of the ordinance had included those species among a list of “Undesirable” trees.

“Why do you have such a list?” Commissioner Brody asked staff on May 2, referring to the prohibited trees.

Assistant City Attorney Mladinich explained that state law makes it a crime to plant certain trees. Defying that law, he added, is “a second-degree misdemeanor.”

This is the list of prohibited trees in the new city tree ordinance. The strikethrough shows language deleted from the earlier version of the ordinance. The underlined sections are new language. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When Brody asked what would happen if, for example, a neighbor complained that someone had planted a prohibited tree.

The person who handled the planting would be referred to law enforcement for potential prosecution, Mladinich replied.

“Arrest somebody for that?!” Brody responded.

“It’s not the city’s law,” Mladinich told Brody.