TAMPA — When it comes to the subject of trees in this tree-loving town, the politics are often difficult.
But the City Council on Thursday decided action beats more delay and voted to send county planners a streamlined version of the city’s nearly half-century old tree ordinance, an action that could make it easier to remove trees from private property.
The 4-2 vote came after more than two hours of public comment and debate, with council members Harry Cohen and Charlie Miranda voting against the modified proposal by the Tampa Bay Builders Association. Council member Frank Reddick had left the meeting by the time the vote was taken.
About a dozen residents pleaded with council members not to give preliminary approval to the plan, saying the builders’ proposal amounted to clear cutting, endangering the city’s cherished tree canopy. And they complained that the proposal had surfaced too quickly in a move many decried as sneaky.
"There would have been more people here if this had been more widely known. It’s pretty scary how this came up," said Chelsea Johnson, president of the Bayshore Beautiful Homeowners Association.
But builders said they had waited for years to fix an expensive and time-consuming process that forced property owners who wanted to remove a tree to request a variance.
"We’ve been going through these same discussions for the last 7½ years," said Jennifer Motsinger, the builders association’s executive vice president. "Take action to give us clarity on this process."
Council chairwoman Yvonne "Yolie" Capin agreed. She said the revision, which had taken more than a year, needed a push.
"That’s the whole point. Let’s inject vigor because there was no vigor," Capin said.
Council member Harry Cohen said hundreds of emails circulating among residents claiming the builders wanted a green light for clear-cutting aren’t accurate.
But, Cohen said, council members should wait to gather more information. A report on the current state of the city’s canopy was due in April.
"That’s a huge piece of factual analysis that none of us have seen yet," Cohen said.
Much of the city thinks development is destroying Tampa’s tree cover, he said. Many other residents think it’s healthy and growing. To allow the tree removal portion of the ordinance to move forward before deciding how to replace trees that are lost stretches public trust, he said.
Council member Mike Suarez asked city staff to forward to the county planning commission a modified version of the builders’ plan. One change would tie any removal to a building permit so that trees couldn’t be cut down before a definite plan was in place. Decisions should be made on individual parcels, not entire zoning districts. And residents or builders seeking to cut down trees wouldn’t have to go to a variance review board, which can cost thousands of dollars.
The builders association’s original proposal had wanted to include lots up to 75 feet wide, but agreed to drop that demand as well as others objected to by city planners. Their main goal, Motsinger has said, was to force some movement on tree removals, which builders say stunts redevelopment.
The city’s tree ordinance, first put in place in 1972, has been modified several times. The latest revision process began about a year ago but was repeatedly delayed by state-mandated zoning changes. At a workshop session last week, council members voiced frustration with the slow pace of the revamp.
County planners should have their recommendation back to the city by the end of April. The city would then give the ordinance two readings before a vote.
Suarez said they could reject or further modify the plan later this year.
"We have 100 percent control over the process," Suarez said.