Canopy crossroad? Law removes local oversight on tree work
August 12, 2019
TALLAHASSEE (AP) — A new state tree law is provoking anger, confusion and ridicule among local officials who must enforce it and tree advocates who will wrestle with it in their efforts to preserve Tallahassee’s urban forest and network of canopy roads.
But the lawmaker who wrote the measure that enables homeowners to bypass local governments when they want to trim back or remove a tree said the new law is a celebration of private property rights. In fact, Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, branded his proposal the Private Property Rights Protection Act when he introduced it to legislative committees.
“Owning property is like one of the American dreams,” LaRosa told the Tallahassee Democrat. “In many countries that is not allowed, or many times taken from them.”
And ownership, according to LaRosa and his supporters means the owner can do what they want on property they own.
HB 1159 went into effect July 1. It forbids municipal governments to require any permits, notice or approval for residents who wish to remove trees believed to pose a danger to people and property.
All a homeowner needs to take down a tree is a report from a certified arborist or landscape architect who says it poses a hazard. And local governments cannot require property owners to replace a tree that’s been removed.
Confusion stems from the provision about trees because it lacks a definition of what is hazardous or dangerous.
“We don’t have a lot of answers right now, it’s too soon,” said Tallahassee Urban Forester Melinda Mohrman.
—When is a tree dangerous?
The new law enables residential property owners to bypass the city and county to remove a tree they see as a threat to safety. The law only applies to residential ownership, meaning the current tree ordinances stand for commercial property and undeveloped land.
The removal of the permit requirement could put in jeopardy Tallahassee’s network of canopy roads, according to local tree advocates. The city and Leon County maintain 78 miles of two-lane roads shaded by oaks, sweet gums, hickory trees and pines.
But while Leon County Commissioner Mary Ann Lindley said the new law is a preemption of authority to the state she also said she thinks local tree rules will continue to protect the canopy roads.
“Therefore; no cutting trees on the canopy roads without very specific clearance via our ordinances and the canopy roads citizen advisory committee oversight,” said Lindley.
The measure exempts “canopied protection areas,” which in Leon County is within 100 feet of the centerline of a canopy road. But much of the city’s canopy is located along private property and critics wonder whether the new law will undermine Tallahassee’s tree culture.
Tallahassee has nurtured a network of nine canopy roads since 1992. They begin near the state Capitol Complex, in the heart of Frenchtown, and at the edge of Midtown. The corridors then extend into rural, pastoral and forested Leon County.
A spokesperson for the City of Tallahassee and the director of Leon County Department of Environmental Services agreed that HB 1159 shifts the determination of whether a tree is dangerous from government to the property owner and their chosen arborist.
“If they have a certified arborist who says the tree is hazardous that is out of our control,” said John Kraynak, the county’s director of environmental services.
“We could take our arborist out there. We can debate. But the Legislature approved that; they do not have to call the local jurisdiction,” said Kraynak.
Kraynak said he would prefer property owners call the county for a free inspection. He conceded there may be bad actors who could hire an arborist with the intent to remove a healthy tree but added he is relying on the integrity of the certified arborist community.
A Virginia Street development illustrates the loophole which could impact sections of Tallahassee’s urban forest. Developers wanted to take out a healthy oak tree at the corner of Monroe St. They hired an arborist who determined it would begin a “state of decline” during site demolition.
If that tree stood in a residential zone then a signed statement from the arborist would remove government from a discussion of whether it should be removed.
“People are really stupid when it comes to trees,” said outspoken tree advocate Ann Bidlingmaier in a discussion about the Private Property Rights Protection Act.
“It gives too much latitude to people who don’t make smart decisions — after (hurricane) Michael some people are just hypersensitive about trees,” surmised Bidlingmaier who has lobbied local and state officials about trees since the 1970s.
—A law inspired by North Florida hurricanes
Both Hurricanes Hermine and Michael downed thousands of trees and entangled their limbs and branches in electrical lines, which plunged sections of Tallahassee into the dark for days.
According to the new law, when there is disruption of electrical service or “imminent vegetation-caused outage,” property owners and electric utilities can trim back and remove the canopy, without checking with anyone.
During a committee hearing, Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, ended debate saying he supported the bill because its focus is public safety.
“Think back to Hurricane Hermine and how many folks in Tallahassee were upset because you have a canopy in your neighborhood you didn’t want cut down what got blown into a transmission line,” said Payne, chair of the Local, Federal and Veterans Affairs Committee.
“You can’t have great canopies around transmission lines without them being trimmed properly,” said Payne.
When environmentalists, cities and counties tried to coax Payne and LaRosa to reign in the proposal and provide safeguards to protect local ordinances during a committee hearing on the bill, he and his supporters brushed them aside to argue for the rights of property owners.
“Property rights are unique to our nation,” said Rep. Ardian Zika, R-Land O’ Lakes, about the requests.
Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said constituents complained about being forced to replant trees after removing one because its roots had damaged driveways or foundations.
“Protecting private property rights is the way to go,” said Rodrigues.
While commercial developers can get permission to remove trees with a contribution to a local tree bank, HB 1159 forbids governments from imposing any such restrictions on residential property owners.
Lobbyists for the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties and environmentalists argued that lawmakers were infringing on municipalities’ ability to govern according to community standards.
“The Legislature simply shouldn’t be involved in these local decisions,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, who voted against the measure.
—Business as usual but watching warily
Morhman and Kraynak said they expect it will be business as usual for Tallahassee trees because local policies are already aligned with the Private Property Protection Act before it became law.
The city, according to Morhman, already has an exemption for a permit to remove or trim a tree thought to be hazardous. Kraynak, who has been with the county for 23 years, said he can’t recall anyone ever being denied a permit when a property owner said a tree posed a threat to people or a building.
“That’s why I’m confused. Why hire an arborist when the county will do the inspection for free,” said Kraynak.
“If we said, ‘No the tree isn’t a hazardous situation, it can’t come out,’ and then if falls on a house or barn or shed — no one is going to take on that liability,” explained Kraynak, who said the county may add a sentence to its policy book to acknowledge the new law’s existence.
But a hazardous tree can be in the eye of the beholder.
“People are trying to figure it out — is it dangerous or is someone trying to play the system by hiring an arborist to get the answer they want to hear,” said Jeff Sharkey, Leon County’s lobbyist, about the provisions in the new law.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” said Sharkey.
Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, http://www.tdo.com