Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
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City says proper tree trimming requires homeowner cooperation

If a specially protected tree falls in Key West, somebody has to replace it.

That's the law when it comes to tree protection in the city, which is reviewing the 26-page code of regulations that governs tree removal on private and public property.

But what about trimming back limbs that obstruct city property or create safety hazards?

Sometimes city workers don't have a choice but to make incorrect cuts at the property line, city staff says.

"What happens is when people are reluctant to cut their trees, city crews come and cut them and the homeowner feels they butchered the trees," Assistant City Attorney Ron Ramsingh said Tuesday night at a special Tree Commission workshop.

The correct way to trim most trees isn't at the property line, but closer to the trunk, which would require city crews getting access to private property, said City Commissioner Tony Yaniz.

"Unless we are allowed to do it properly by going on private property, we're not doing the job right," said Yaniz, the only one of seven commissioners at Tuesday's public workshop. "We either follow the ordinance or we change the ordinance."

Key West is a city with a seven-member Tree Commission -- created under a Florida law that first took effect in 1970 -- and a host of laws meant to protect the overall tree canopy that gives the island its signature lush look and feel.

Proposed revisions include creating some leeway for home-owners with "economic hardship" who are legally forced to replace protected trees, which include the gumbo limbo, coconut palm, mahogany, royal poinciana and 90 additional species.

The full Tree Commission met at Old City Hall to hash out the various issues behind the island's tree policies.

"I know we're here to protect trees, but at the same time, if a tree was destroying your house or causing hardship to you, you wouldn't want to be burdened with an $8,000 to $10,000 bill," said David Jackson, a commission member.

"There is an issue coming up with homeowners' insurance," said Karen DeMaria, the city's Urban Forestry manager.

"That could be a hardship itself. If trees are too close to the house, the insurance company says, 'Do something about that tree or your rates double.' That's something we may also want to look at."

Another proposed change is to start charging fees for tree removal permits, which are now free, and restrict tree-trimmers from using "climbing spurs" on palms unless they first get permission for total tree removal from the Tree Commission.

"There are avenues the city can go down that we haven't done yet," said Ramsingh. "We're trying to take the diplomatic approach."

Key West's city code allows homeowners to be cited for problematic tree growth, but Ramsingh said after the meeting that the revisions aren't about cracking down on anyone.

"We're trying to make it more user-friendly," Ramsingh said.

Jackson, the most vocal member of the seven tree commissioners, made the point that Key Westers are on the same page when it comes to protecting trees.

At one point Debbie Crowley spoke up about her tall coconut palm that requires climbing spurs for anyone to reach it. She likes to have the coconuts removed each year to prevent them from possibly falling on someone.

DeMaria suggested adding some exceptions to the code when it comes to banning climbing spurs.

"It's not like we have a group of people that are begging to spike these trees," said Jackson. "It's quite the opposite. We have a very good group of landscapers and arborists."

The evening had its share of Tree Commission supporters.

Scott Montgomery of Native Landscape Design told the commission that the city's tree ordinance is one of the best things the island has going for it.

"It's very important to replace those trees," Montgomery said. "I'm very happy that the tree ordinance takes into account that trees should be replaced with native species."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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