Siesta Isles’ appeal over tree removal leads to Sarasota County ordinance and procedural changes

The same day the County Commission approves the measures, it also awards the organization another $10,000 through the Neighborhood Grant Program

Tony Romans. File photo
Tony Romanus. File photo

The Sarasota County Commission has amended its Tree Ordinance to prevent a recipient of any county Neighborhood Initiative Grant Program award from being stopped in its tracks in beautification efforts.

Moreover, the board has asked for a full staff investigation into how the Tree Ordinance might be modified to enable individuals or groups to plant new trees when that will result in improvements over the existing conditions.

The board action last week pleased Siesta Isles Association President Tony Romanus, he told The Sarasota News Leader in a Jan. 26 telephone interview. “That’s good to hear. They moved quickly on this,” he said.

The votes were a direct result of an appeal by the Siesta Isles Association over county staff’s halting its work — funded by a Neighborhood Grant Program award — to replace mostly invasive tree species at two neighborhood entrances in an effort to beautify the roadways. Commissioners chastised staff after siding with the association on Dec. 8, 2015.

And the Jan. 26 board action came none too soon, Romanus noted, as his organization that very day won another Neighborhood Initiative Grant Program award of $10,000 for the second phase of its beautification project: an “interesting coincidence on the timing,” as Romanus put it.

During the appeal hearing on Dec. 8, 2015, Romanus pointed out that all the Siesta Isles Association wanted to do was take out eight existing trees and replace them with 10 new ones. However, a day after the work began, county staff stopped it, Romanus told the board. The reason: The association had not obtained the necessary permit for the work, in spite of the fact that the organization had signed a contract with the county that reflected its plans to use a $10,000 award from the Neighborhood Grant Program to remodel the landscaping in the right of way medians on Shadow Lawn Way and Beach Way Drive, a staff memo noted.

A staff photo shows the trees that previously stood on Shadow Lawn Way. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A staff photo shows the trees that previously stood on Shadow Lawn Way. Image courtesy Sarasota County
New royal palms stand in the right of way median on Shadow Lawn Drive. Rachel Hackney photo
New royal palms stand in the right of way median on Shadow Lawn Way. Rachel Hackney photo

In asking for a broader discussion of the Tree Ordinance on Jan. 26, Commissioner Christine Robinson referred to that Dec. 8 discussion: “We’ve seen just how nonsensical [the circumstances] could be.”

During the Jan. 26 public hearing, Howard Berna, the county’s manager of environmental permitting, explained that the changes to remedy what happened to the Siesta Isles Association were twofold. First, he said, the procedure regarding Neighborhood Initiative Grant proposals already had been updated so any plan involving landscaping — as well as tree removal, replacement or plantings — would go to the Environmental Permitting team for review.

That would enable the appropriate staff to evaluate “the net environmental benefit and also have the opportunity to comment on any ‘right plant — right place’ concerns,” Berna explained in a Jan. 26 memo to the board. By incorporating that review early in the process, the memo added, any potential conflicts could be be resolved prior to the County Commission’s consideration of the grant request.

Second, Berna said, staff proposed a change in the portion of the Tree Ordinance regarding tree-removal exemptions, so it would encompass landscaping. The new language in Section 54-585(1)(g) of the code would say the following:

Howard Berna. File photo
Howard Berna. File photo

“Tree Removal and Tree Relocation necessary for the maintenance of existing roads, utilities, landscaping, or stormwater facilities within rights-of-way and easements, or to comply with state technical specifications (e.g., for sight clearance), performed or contracted by a duly constituted communication, water sewerage, stormwater, electrical, other utility or government entity, or pursuant to an approved Sarasota County Neighborhood Initiative Grant for work within a public right-of-way.”

“Our office will ensure protection of Grand Trees and Canopy Roads,” Berna told the board.

No member of the public signed up to address the matter during the public hearing, Chair Al Maio noted after Berna concluded his presentation.

“While this fixes the precise issue that came before us,” Robinson pointed out, many of the complaints the board has heard have focused on “the lack of common sense [in] the ordinance in regards to several trees replacing one tree.” She added that the proposed change to the ordinance “doesn’t cure that aspect of [the problem].”

“What about a person who is trying to do this on their own property?” she continued, or a homeowners association that is not the recipient of a Neighborhood Grant Program award.

“We can get through this, Mr. Chair,” Robinson said, “but I’m interested in fixing the larger problem …”

“I would agree with Commissioner Robinson,” Commissioner Carolyn Mason told her colleagues. “I wholeheartedly agree that this just fixes this problem. I would not be adverse at all to looking at the whole [Tree] Ordinance.”

The goal, Mason continued, should be to avoid “a piecemeal approach” to resolving all the potential problems with the regulations.

Robinson made the motion to amend the Tree Ordinance to include the exemption Berna proposed. Commissioner Charles Hines seconded it, and it passed unanimously.

Commissioner Christine Robinson. Rachel Hackney photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. Rachel Hackney photo

Hines then asked Matt Osterhoudt, senior manager in the Planning and Development Services Department, what his thoughts were on a more comprehensive approach to the issues at hand. Osterhoudt gained clarification that the board was seeking a means of dealing with any tree replacement matter in which new plantings would be an improvement over the trees already standing. With the board’s concurrence, Osterhoudt said staff would delve into that issue and then schedule the matter for a discussion.

County Administrator Tom Harmer suggested staff incorporate its findings and recommendations into a typical board report, which it would deliver to the commission in advance of the discussion.

No board member objected to that approach.

Over at Siesta Isles …

During the Jan. 26 telephone interview, Romanus told the News Leader the contractor with whom Siesta Isles worked on Phase I of its beautification project had just finished planting the new trees the previous day. When county staff issued its stop-work order in September, he pointed out, it “basically delayed us for about four months.”

After the organization was ordered to cease tree removal in late September, he explained, he learned the earliest the County Commission could hear the appeal was Dec. 8.

Following the commission vote to uphold the association’s appeal, Romanus said, it took until mid-January to obtain the county permit Siesta Isles needed so a contractor could remove the existing trees and replace them, as planned, with 10 royal palms.

Work has not begun yet on the Glebe Lane entrance to Siesta Isles. Rachel Hackney photo
Work has not begun yet on the Glebe Lane entrance to Siesta Isles. Rachel Hackney photo

“It’s challenging because the spirit of that ordinance is to protect trees,” he noted. “But we were just trying to make [the landscaping at the entrances] more Florida-friendly.”

Phase II of Siesta Isles’ project encompasses the installation of new entry signs; additional Florida-friendly landscaping; irrigation; and rebranding the association’s website, letterhead and newsletter to match the new signs, according to a summary of the application provided to the County Commission.

Material prepared for the board in advance of the Jan. 26 meeting also included the following information from the public benefit statement in the application: “The multiphase project includes improvements to the five entrances to Siesta Isles, all of which are accessible to the general public. … A portion of our neighborhood serves as an alternate route for many who desire to avoid the traffic on Beach Road. … Our goal is to establish a clear identity to all who are entering Siesta Isles, regardless of the entry they choose.”

The total expense of the project is $20,893.17, the documentation notes. Volunteers will provide 248 hours of time, which was accorded a total value of $3,720, the application adds.

With the $10,000 grant approved, Romanus told the News Leader, “We’ll be off to the races.”