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‘A historic compromise’: Builders and advocates finally agree on how best to protect Tampa’s trees

The 5-1 vote creates a new process to cut down and plant trees in the city and will take effect June 1.

TAMPA---Many metaphors were employed Thursday to describe the arduous route taken to reach an agreement on protecting Tampa’s trees without stifling development.

Council member Mike Suarez compared the often fractious negotiations to a three-year-long flight. One tree advocate referenced the gestation period of an elephant.

After more than an hour of discussion, the council approved the measure by a 5-1 vote.

But not before a final stand was made by some opponents to remove a provision requiring private property owners to get a $120 permit to trim tree limbs thicker than 4 inches.

Council members agreed to delay when the new regulations would take effect until June 1 to give city officials time to educate the public. And council members also voted to scrutinize the ordinance in October to see if any tweaks needed to be made.

The mood among tree advocates was jubilant.

Calling it a “historical compromise,” tree activist Chelsea Johnson said her group, Tree Something, Say Something, had worked for over a year with builders to find common ground.

“Our priceless trees deserve the very best protections that we can give them to the best of our ability," Johnson told council members before the vote.

Council member Harry Cohen agreed.

“The ordinance is a tremendous achievement, a tremendous compromise,” Cohen said.

Council member Harry Cohen is one of four council members who will leave office on May 1. For over a year, those members have urged the two sides to present them with a plan they could approve before their terms expired. On Thursday, that plea was realized. Chairman Frank Reddick and Suarez also voted in favor. Council member Luis Viera was absent.

Another departing council member, Yvonne Yolie Capin, voted against the ordinance. She said she thought it would put an unfair burden on poor people who couldn’t afford a permit.

“They are looking at paying their rent and buying food and then paying for a permit? That’s just not going to happen. We have many neighborhoods like that,” Capin said, who noted that the supporters were in her view “white and middle class.”

Broadly speaking, the ordinance gives builders and property owners more flexibility in locating a house on a lot that has a grand tree, mostly by reducing some setbacks. It also streamlines the appeal and inspection process. In addition, the ordinance recasts a tree fund to more transparently allocate the money deposited into the fund by developers who cut down trees and can’t replant new ones into restoring the city’s canopy.

The details are legion and often confusing, which city officials cited as a reason to delay its implementation. And why all sides agreed an October review would be prudent.

Steve Michelini, a consultant representing builders, who opposes the trimming permit requirements, among other issues, said the four-month window between when the ordinance goes into effect and the review was another sign of compromise.

“Not much can happen in four months,” Michelini said.

Joe Chillura, a former City Council member and county commissioner, who authored the city’s first tree ordinance in the early 1970s, also appealed to council to approve the ordinance.

He praised the efforts of city staff, advocates and builders to work out a deal.

“I wholeheartedly support it,” he said.