Not even trees are safe from the Florida Legislature | Editorial

Florida lawmakers effectively uprooted local tree protections. It’s another Tallahassee assault on local control.
ALLIE GOULDING   |   Times
Oak trees hang over a fence of flowers in April in Lutz.
ALLIE GOULDING | Times Oak trees hang over a fence of flowers in April in Lutz.
Published July 10

Is there no local issue too small for Tallahassee to micromanage? In the latest example of state overreach, Florida lawmakers have effectively overturned local tree protections, putting the tree canopy across the state at greater risk to developers and property owners who want even more freedom to build whereever they please. This is a significant loss for local control and the sensible accommodations that builders and environmentalists have made in Tampa and elsewhere that reflect the wishes of local communities.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in June that bans local governments from regulating the removal, replanting, pruning or trimming of a tree on private property if a licensed arborist determines the tree poses a danger. Tampa city attorneys said the legislation removes the city’s arborists from the role of verifying dangerous trees and having a say in their pruning or removal. The new law also bars local governments from requiring any notice, application, permit or fee for tree work on any residential property. And local officials cannot require property owners to replant any tree that was trimmed or removed.

The new law, which took effect this month, rolls back tree protections embraced by some of Florida’s largest cities and counties. St. Petersburg updated its tree ordinance in 2015 and required permits to remove “grand” trees such as live oaks, “protected” shade trees and “signature” trees that include certain sizes of banyan and kapok trees. This spring, the Tampa City Council approved an historic compromise between builders and tree advocates that allowed more flexibility to site a house in exchange for more protections for trees. The compromise built on decades of tree protection efforts in Tampa, and it brought competing sides together to balance the interests of growth, property rights and environmental protection.

There was no need for the state to intervene in a local issue that called out for inclusion and common sense. In Tampa, for example, all sides aired their grievances — from developers with horror stories of dealing with local government to residents tired of seeing healthy trees laid to waste. The new law leaves Tampa and other communities powerless in policing bad actors, delegating the authority over trees to arborists or landscape architects hired by the property owner. And the only finding needed for work to proceed is that “the tree presents a danger to persons or property.”

Every tree presents a danger to people and property, even healthy trees. This loophole alone reflects the green light given to developers and the narrow scope local governments have to protect against abuse.

Tampa’s tree canopy has been protected for four decades, through boom times and bust, which demonstrates that growth and protecting trees are not incompatible goals. The canopy covered nearly one-third of the city in 2011, an increase from 2006, which was better than the previous decade even amid a building boom. Along the way, Tampa’s tree canopy won national awards as it protected property and improved the area’s quality of life, removing pollutants from the air and water and helping residents avoid soaring energy costs.

Advocates hope that common sense, cooperation and an appreciation for the importance of trees will offset the damage created by this handout to developers. But there’s no sugar-coating the loss.

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