Public opposition mounting to proposed Sarasota County Code changes that would loosen restrictions regarding preservation of Grand Trees

Jan. 31 public hearing planned in downtown Sarasota

On Jan. 31, the Sarasota County Commission will conduct a public hearing on proposed changes to the County Code of Ordinances to facilitate the removal of Grand Trees for construction purposes.

Based on Facebook posts and emails that advocates for the protection of Grand Trees have sent out in recent weeks, The Sarasota News Leader has been led to believe that a number of county residents will appear before the board to protest facets of the new ordinance.

On Dec. 13, 2022, during their next-to-last public meeting last year, the board members voted unanimously to authorize the Jan. 31 hearing, having discussed the issues on Oct. 11, 2022 with Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division.

The proposed changes to Section 54-586 of the County Code would allow the following:

  • Grand Trees would not have to be protected in the construction of projects on existing lots if they pose safety hazards or “[i]f the Applicant can clearly demonstrate to the satisfaction of the [appropriate county staff member] during permit review, or the [commission] on appeal, respectively, that setting aside the space necessary to protect a Grand Tree would unreasonably prevent the Development of a Lot.”
  • Grand Trees would not have to be protected during the development of new lots if they pose safety hazards or if the Grand Tree is located in a required access point to a lot “with no other reasonable alternative access point as determined by the Code Administrator in consultation with the Sarasota County Engineer.”

Grand Trees are “determined by adding points calculated for the diameter, height and spread of a tree together. If the sum equals or is greater than the defined point total for your tree species, it is considered a Grand Tree,” a county flyer, with graphics, explains. The diameter, for example, is calculated by measuring the trunk at a point 4.5 feet from the ground — breast height — and dividing the figure by 3.14.

The graph says a tree gets 1 point per inch of diameter at breast height, as measured above; 1 point per foot of height; and 1 point per each 4 feet of average canopy spread.

To be considered a Grand Tree, an American elm would have to earn a total of 100 points, while a Southern magnolia would need 80 points, the flyer notes.

Additionally, the ordinance provides the following language for new commercial developments: “One Tree shall be planted for

each 2,000 square feet of the property. Native Trees in good condition protected as part of a Tree Permit may be counted toward the total number of Trees required to be planted.”

For expansion of, or additions to, existing commercial development, the following would apply: “The Tree planting requirements contained in 54-589(2)(d) will be calculated based on the square footage of the new impervious area of the Lot being developed. For determining Tree planting requirements, new shell parking areas are considered impervious.”

Section 54-586(2)(d) says, “All Grand Trees shall be replaced on a [diameter at breast height] DBH inch for DBH inch basis. When the [Code] Administrator determines that site-specific conditions limit or prevent the replacement of Trees on-site (e.g., exceeding the one Tree for each 2,000 square feet replanting requirement), the applicant shall pay into the reforestation special revenue fund based on the following schedule:

  • “1. Existing Lots: $200 per DBH inch not replanted on site. For every 25% of the total DBH inch that is replanted on site, the $200 fee is reduced by $50. All calculations are to be rounded down in consideration of replanting.
  • “2. New Lots: $400 per DBH inch not replanted.”

Further, the ordinance would allow the County Commission to consider any appeals from a property owner or applicant “aggrieved by the administration or interpretation of any of the terms or provisions of this article …”

The ordinance adds, “The [commission] may consider such appeals concurrently with rezoning or special exception petitions when there is a binding development concept plan associated with the petition. There is no fee associated with the appeals process.”

Another document in the backup agenda material for the Jan. 31 hearing is the standard county Ordinance Impact Statement. It says, “The proposed changes could reduce the potential cost of permitted Grand Tree removal on existing residential properties while increasing the potential cost of permitted Grand Tree removal for new lots. Also the proposed changes could reduce the potential cost of tree planting on certain existing commercial lots.”

Timing of the Jan. 31 hearing uncertain

The commissioners no longer divide their meetings into morning and afternoon sessions — a move officially approved last year to make it easier to adjust the flow of business. Therefore, the News Leader cannot predict when the Grand Tree amendments will be heard on Jan. 31. The item is listed as No. 49, below the Consent Agenda of routine business matters; three discussions involving various topics; 11 Presentations Upon Request, which could entail public comments and staff or applicant remarks; the standard Reports section for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht and the board members; and two other hearings for which presentations have been scheduled.

The meeting will be held at the County Administration Center standing at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

Decrying the proposed changes

Last week, the News Leader reported that county staff cited sections of the existing County Code as the basis for the issuance of a permit to Benderson Development Co. so it could hire a contractor to clear-cut the site where its mixed-use Siesta Promenade project is slated to be built. The approximately 24-acre parcel is located in the northwest quadrant of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41.

Several years ago, before county staff issued a minor earthmoving permit to Benderson Development in regard to removal of aged and dilapidated infrastructure on the property — such as septic tanks and concrete pads where mobile homes used to stand — Darren Semones, a member of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division staff, identified two Grand Pines and other trees that were to be protected during the process and saved.

The clear-cutting news, combined with the publication’s Dec. 23, 2022 report of the authorization of the Jan. 31 public hearing, has generated numerous comments on the News Leader’s website, as well.

Among them have been the following:

  • “No to grand tree removals. Wake up.”
  • “The importance of our GRAND TREES cannot ever be overlooked.
    Due to the continued development and loss of (any) tree notwithstanding GRAND TREES, hurricanes are more devastating and our shores are further eroded, less carbon is sequestered, thus more CO2 in our atmosphere, and the cycle continues to spiral. Developers need not EVER be given such a long leash to destruction of our areas. NO TO GRAND TREE REMOVAL.”
  • “Grand Trees will continue to be treated as ‘perishable’ as [former] County Commissioner [Alan] Maio has deemed them and so it goes. Until people show up and vote these jerks out, the people will get what they voted for, the continued existence of being a plebe for the 1%’er Grand Developers who will always choose paving over something rather than working within the constraints of Florida’s natural beauty.”

In late December 2022, the publication of an article in the Englewood Sun and Venice Gondolier about the proposed Grand Trees amendment and the Jan. 31 public hearing drew outrage, as well.

One resident wrote this Facebook post in response to the article: “Sarasota County is filled with live oaks and other ‘grand trees.’ On 1/31, the County Commission will vote on an ordinance to loosen restrictions so developers can do more clear cutting for treeless tract subdivisions. Say NO! to this latest assault on our community. EMail:”

Another person commented, “Dump raw sewage in the water, poison the air with auto exhaust and kill the trees that clean the air. All this does is cause disease and death, and produce huge profits for developers and the politicians they buy off.”

A third individual wrote of the commissioners, “They only represent developers.”

On Jan. 18, one resident addressed the commissioners during the Open to the Public period at the start of the meeting, urging them not to modify their rules regarding Grand Trees.

The woman, whom Chair Ron Cutsinger identified as Toni Marie, said she recently had learned about the Jan. 31 hearing. Some of the commissioners already might have received emails from residents upset about the proposed changes to the county regulations, she added.

“I’m not aware of anybody in favor of making it easier for commercial developers to remove Grand Trees unless they would benefit in some way,” she told the board members.

In reference to the proposed changes to the section about development of existing lots, she pointed to the term “unreasonably prevent,” noting that it was “somewhat arbitrary, non-specific and, as some people might say, ‘a little loosey-goosey.’ ”

Moreover, Marie reminded the commissioners that, in 2021, the county celebrated its 30th year as a designated Tree City, as cited in an Arbor Day Foundation program.

She added that she hoped the commissioners would show their favor to the trees in the county, “and not the developers.”

1 thought on “Public opposition mounting to proposed Sarasota County Code changes that would loosen restrictions regarding preservation of Grand Trees”

  1. I have been looking into this change, as proposed by engineers and law firms engaged by developers. After attending, by invitation, a meeting with the Sarasota Tree Advisory Council, and working behind the scenes with the Environmental Planning of the county to try to understand the proposed changes – I have received nothing as succinct and informative as this article. Thank you for such careful and complete reportage – rare in this time and place!

    What it takes now is for more people – regular citizens who care about their own environment – to attend the commission meeting on Jan 31st in the County Commission chambers at 1660 Ringling Blvd. Just show up. Speak your mind. You don’t have to be a master of the facts to speak. Without civic engagement, I believe we can all just say good-bye to what little is left of our grand tree canopy. Hope everyone enjoys the sizzling concrete jungle that is left to us, forever.

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