Sarasota mayor credits city and county groups, well as Florida League of Cities, for restoration of local government authority in state tree-trimming bill

Sen. Greg Steube, who introduced the bill in October 2017, filed an amendment preserving home rule

A chart shows action related to Sen. Greg Steube’s tree-trimming bill. Image courtesy Florida Senate

A bill that would have pre-empted municipalities and counties from regulating the trimming, removal or harvesting of trees and timber on private property has been amended to allow local governments to take such action, Sarasota Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie reported to her colleagues this week.

State Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, indicated he already had planned to introduce such an amendment to the bill before members of the Florida League of Cities and other entities began pressing him for the change, Freeland Eddie said during the commission’s Feb. 5 meeting.

Steube filed the original bill on Oct. 20, 2017.

The amendment, Freeland Eddie added, “basically [does] what we asked him to do. … So I’m very pleased that that has happened.”

Steube’s bill was referred on Nov. 2, 2017 to the Senate’s Community Affairs, Environmental Preservation and Conservation, and Rules-SJ 46 committees. He filed the amendment on Feb. 1, a Florida Senate webpage says. (Although the revised bill was on the agenda for the Community Affairs Committee’s Feb. 6 agenda, the webpage said it was “Not Considered” when The Sarasota News Leader checked that page late that afternoon.)

Freeland Eddie also credited the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations (CCNA) and the county’s Sarasota Tree Advisory Council (STAC) for their correspondence, urging Steube not to take away from municipalities and counties the right to regulate tree-trimming and removal.

Sent to the County Commission on Nov. 17, 2017, the STAC letter said that the council members voted unanimously during their Nov. 9, 2017 meeting “to express opposition to [Senate Bill] 574 and companion [House Bill] 521.” The letter points out, “Since 1983, the County’s local regulations of tree removal and trimming, including the Trees Ordinance and related ordinances, have protected and maintained the ecological and environmental benefits of trees in our community.”

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. file photo

City of Sarasota leaders, Freeland Eddie pointed out on Feb. 5, had asked “that we be allowed to protect trees and to provide a tree canopy …”

She noted that the city also has a tree ordinance, which is under review by an advisory committee the commissioners appointed late last year.

During the League of Cities’ meeting the previous week, she continued, she and other Sarasota city commissioners had the opportunity to talk with Steube about Senate Bill 574.

“The League, in my opinion, did a tremendous job of expressing the concerns [of cities from around the state],” Freeland Eddie added.

However, the amendment does allow utility companies to deal with trees on the rights of way of their transmission and distribution lines, Freeland Eddie continued.

The language says that after such rights of way have been established and constructed, “no local government shall require or apply any permits or other approvals or code provisions for or related to vegetation maintenance and tree pruning or trimming within the established right-of-way.”

That means utility companies may remove branches, trees or brush within those rights of way, the amendment makes clear.

On Feb. 6, though, a member of the Senate’s Community Affairs Committee — Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat — filed a second amendment to the bill. It would restore local governments’ ability to implement permitting processes or other means of regulating utility companies’ trimming in those rights of way, based on the News Leader’s reading of the amendment.

Freeland Eddie told her colleagues that she sent correspondence from the CCNA and STAC, opposing the bill in its original form, to members of the three Senate committees to which the bill was referred after Steube introduced it. She included in that packet information from city staff about the benefits of trees, as well as private homeowners’ desire to see the city’s home rule authority preserved.

State Sen. Greg Steube, a Republican, lives in Sarasota. Image from the Florida Senate

“I just want to thank you for your efforts … and getting support from the community,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch told Freeland Eddie.

“I want to say that as well,” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert added.

She talked with Steube shortly after he filed the bill, Alpert continued. “At that time, not enough people had gotten to him, so we had agreed to disagree on this. So I’m glad he finally came around.”

Alpert also expressed her thanks to the CCNA and the STAC.

“We’ll continue to monitor this legislation,” Freeland Eddie said. Noting that the companion bill filed in the Florida House, she added, “It’s not over till it’s over.”