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County backs off mangrove proposal

Before a crowd of angry waterfront property owners, the Pinellas County Commission backed away Tuesday from a proposal for strict rules on trimming mangroves.

Commissioners decided to adopt restrictions similar to those imposed by the state, which allow trimming to a height of 6 feet. They rejected a proposal to restrict trimming to 12 feet in most cases.

The decision was met with applause.

"We're not here to destroy the mangroves," said homeowner Bonnie Ormerod. "We have mangroves that have grown 4 feet in 9 months. They populate themselves."

Ormerod was one of dozens of homeowners who complained the county's current rules are byzantine, arbitrary and overly strict. She waved an inch-thick file at commissioners to show how much time she's spent trying to get a permit to cut.

Others spoke of neighbors who trim illegally, trimmers who want to charge $3,000 a day and the travails of getting a permit.

"My neighbor's house has a waterfront view," said Clearwater resident Mike Andolino.

"I pay more than him in taxes, and he has a beautiful view."

It didn't matter that Will Davis, director of the county's environmental management department, said the county's proposed rules would be less strict and bureaucratic than the current rules. Or that he said 12-foot tall mangrove trees would be healthier and provide better home for birds and food for marine life than 6-foot tall trees.

Nor did it matter that a scientist who advised both Pinellas and the state on mangrove health told commissioners that the state's 6-foot rule was based on politics, not science.

Or that county scientists say almost half the county's mangroves, a vital part of waterfront ecology, have disappeared since the 1950s, and that Pinellas mangroves are more vulnerable because the climate is colder than in south Florida.

Homeowners, frustrated with the county's current confusing standards, were fueled by one overriding wish: to have the waterfront view for which they paid dearly.

Commissioners heard their pleas.

"You say there's no science, and yet mangroves around the state are flourishing," said County Commissioner Calvin Harris. "We've allowed almost no trimming and you say our mangroves are disappearing."

County Commissioner Susan Latvala said Pinellas County let homeowners move onto the water, then yanked away their rights.

"We allowed development along the shoreline," she said. "Then we wanted to prohibit their rights to trim the mangroves."

Latvala suggested changing the ordinance to conform with state rules on key points. In most cases, mangroves could be trimmed to a height of 6 feet. Permits would be issued within 30 days.

On other points, such as standards for trimming freeze-killed mangroves and requiring more regulation of mangrove trimmers, commissioners agreed to stay with the county staff's proposal.

County staffers also will retain enforcement of the ordinance, which they say will be more vigilant than what the state would provide.

But the key points on tree height will be the same as the state.

The new rules aren't final.

County staffers will return with a new draft at the commission's Dec. 3 meeting.

But it's clear that the decision ends six years of Pinellas County having its own set of mangrove rules.

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