Once again, City Commission splits 3-2 on Tree Advisory Committee, with Commissioners Ahearn-Koch and Shaw opposing development interests

Applications for the board are due by Sept. 20

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. News Leader photo

Reprising their votes and a number of the same arguments that they engaged in on July 3, the Sarasota city commissioners this week established an ad hoc Tree Advisory Committee in an effort to make the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance function better.

Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Willie Shaw cast the “No” votes, as they did in July.

The board members did all agree to City Attorney Robert Fournier’s suggestion that people interested in serving on the committee may submit their applications by Sept. 20, with the goal of the having the City Commission appoint members at its first session in October. That way, Fournier said, the group could start its work early in the 2018 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.

Interested persons should use the standard city advisory board membership application, the commissioners also agreed by consensus.

When Fournier introduced the Aug. 21 agenda item regarding the committee ordinance, he noted that he had made a slight change in it since July. That pertains to trees creating unsafe conditions, he explained, adding that he felt city staff should continue to retain the option of dealing with those situations. “We’ve seen a lot of them lately.”

Section 3.2 says that one of the committee’s duties will be to consider “[h]ow to best address the issue of unsafe conditions caused by healthy trees on public property. (e.g. roots lifting sidewalks) The enumeration of this task among the Committee’s duties shall not be construed to restrict or limit the authority of the City administration to remove trees on public property that are the cause of hazardous or dangerous conditions on public rights of way or to otherwise eliminate or improve unsafe conditions on public property resulting from the presence of trees during the time that the Committee is active.”

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie also proposed on Aug. 21 that a “catch-all” paragraph be added to the section on the committee’s duties, to give the members the ability to consider other issues they feel are appropriate under their purview. That was made part of Commissioner Hagen Brody’s motion to approve the ordinance.

Ire focused at the Chamber

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch. News Leader photo

Ahearn-Koch was the first to voice her continuing objections to facets of the ordinance. “I have a very serious issue,” she said, “with there being two development interests being represented on this board. I think you’re dooming [the committee] to fail immediately. I would rather leave it open to citizens who live in the city of Sarasota and/or cut [membership] down from seven to maybe … five.”

The inclusion of the potential for a person representing the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce “also bothers me,” she told her colleagues.

The membership, as outlined in the ordinance, would be as follows: two neighborhood representatives, two development interest representatives, one downtown core resident, one Chamber of Commerce representative or downtown core merchant, and one landscape architect or arborist.

“I think we already discussed [this] before and decided that this was the membership of the board that we felt [would work best],” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert told her.

“I just feel very, very strongly that somebody from the Chamber of Commerce — I’m speechless to say … why somebody from the Chamber of Commerce should be on here,” Ahearn-Koch responded.

“I have to concur with my colleague,” Shaw added. “I know I wasn’t on the prevailing side when this came along the first time,” he acknowledged, but he especially was not comfortable with the potential for a Chamber representative. Shaw cited connections between the Chamber and developers, saying those “take away from the true essence of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Freeland Eddie pointed out that that specific membership item called for a downtown core merchant or a Chamber of Commerce representative.

“Downtown core is different from Chamber,” Shaw responded.

Alpert said she had no problem with limiting that category to “downtown core merchant,” “but I think [the membership] should be evenly balanced.”

“What good is [it] if we don’t have a diverse group of people taking a look at this and we’re getting only one perspective?” Brody asked. Without a balance of interests represented by the members, he pointed out, “then we’re going to be right back where we started,” with people of opposing views in the community continuing to argue about the Tree Protection Ordinance.

Moreover, Brody said, the commission will not be bound to accept the committee’s recommendations.

Commissioner Hagen Brody

Although he had argued in July for seeking unanimity among the members before the committee offered any recommendations to the commission, he continued, he was overruled on that. “But at least [with the proposed makeup of the committee], they’ve vetted what we’re asking them to vet and given different recommendations.”

As for the potential for a Chamber representative, Brody continued, “I think it’s important to have … those large groups [of developers and builders] represented.”

He would like to see committee members who are involved with big organizations, Brody added, such as leaders of the City Council of Neighborhood Associations (CCNA) and the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange.

Freeland Eddie then voiced her desire to keep the option for a Chamber representative. One of her concerns, she noted, is the potential negative impact of the Tree Protection Ordinance on development of affordable housing units. Sometimes it is more costly to build in the city because of zoning regulations, she pointed out.

Furthermore, she said she believes that the individuals who will serve on the committee will work in good faith to arrive at recommendations for the commission.

“So, with all due respect, thank you for your opinions,” Ahearn-Koch told Freeland Eddie. “My opinion is very strong. … We are in a situation where trees are coming down at an alarming rate. … We’re almost in crisis …”

Ahearn-Koch added, “What I see this advisory board doing is moving our city forward with a tree protection plan, and I think this makeup [of membership] is not going to do that.”

Shaw again concurred with her.

“With all due respect to both of you,” Alpert told Ahearn-Koch and Shaw, “we’ve passed a … fairly strict Tree Protection Ordinance.” The commission needs the committee, she pointed out, because that ordinance is “creating problems for developers, and it’s creating problems for homeowners.” The goal with establishing the committee, Alpert added, is to allow its diverse membership to suggest tweaks to the ordinance “to make it work for everybody.”
Alpert continued, “I hear from homeowners who want to replace a palm tree in their yard with another palm tree, and our ordinance doesn’t allow them to do that. So I think that this is an advisory committee. … They advise us; we don’t have to accept their recommendations.”

Freeland Eddie then called for a motion, noting, “We’re repeating ourselves.”

After Brody made it, and Alpert seconded it, and Freeland Eddie voted with them to approve it.