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  1. Hillsborough

Tampa's new tree ordinance marks a compromise between builders, tree preservationists

TAMPA — Friday is Arbor Day, and this year, Tampa's builders and tree preservationists have more reason to celebrate.

For decades, the two sides have clashed over the removal of grand and other protected trees that make up the city's lush canopy. But after a year of intense negotiations, the Tampa Builders Association and neighborhood tree advocates came up with a compromise ordinance that Tampa City Council passed last week.

"The real story is that the builders and tree advocates and the city worked together for a year to come up with a tree code that is fantastic,'' said Chelsea Johnson, who founded the tree preservationist group, Tree Something, Say Something. She said some of the discussions took place around the dining room table of her home in South Tampa.

Stephen Michelini, who represents Tampa Bay Builders Association, said, "It kind of brings the code up to date and makes it a little more reasonable.'' He noted, however, that it is "not any easier to understand.''

A basic provision of the ordinance, which takes effect June 1, gives developers flexibility in moving structures on small lots a bit beyond the standard zoning setbacks in order to save protected trees, especially grand trees, defined as having a trunk diameter of 32 inches at 4 ½ feet above the ground, and specimen trees, with a diameter of 24 inches.

Catherine Coyle, planning and urban design manager for the City of Tampa, used as a hypothetical example a 50 ft. by 100 ft. lot in the zoning district near Lowry Park, where the normal yard setbacks are 7 feet on the sides and 20 feet at the front and rear. Under the new ordinance, the builder could shift the building 1 ft on each side and 25 percent — or 5 feet — into the setbacks of the front and rear.

If a palm tree, a protected tree the city would hope to save, were two feet away from the proposed structure on the side of the house — with the requirement that it must be three feet away from the structure — then the builder could move the building one foot farther away on the tree side, reducing the setback on the other side to 6 feet. If the palm tree were in the middle of the lot, then there would be no way to save it and it would have to be removed, she said.

If a developer goes before the Variance Review Board and public hearing seeking permission to remove a healthy grand tree, the board will base its decision on several factors, including whether the builder can reasonably alter the design of the structure to accommodate the tree.

The ordinance also changes the formula for replacing grand trees that have to be removed. The new provision determines how many mitigation trees one has to buy in order to match the canopy of the removed grand tree in five years. The old formula, which is still used on smaller protected trees, bases the replacement trees on trunk size of the removed tree.

"The mitigation formula we have is unique and probably the most up-to-date way to do it,'' said Coyle. She said other cities have inquired about it.

Before, mitigation trees could only be planted in the right of way of the property in question. The new ordinance allows them to be planted anywhere within its district, including neighbors' yards, if they want them.

Kathy Beck, the city's natural resources coordinator, said the change produces a bigger canopy which serves the community better, converting more carbon dioxide in the air to oxygen, providing more shade and cooling, raising property values and soaking up storm water, among other benefits.

The city requires a permit to remove all protected trees whose trunks are 5 inches in diameter at 4 ½ feet above the ground, plus any tree planted for mitigation, no matter the size.

The permitting fee, with administrative cost, is $124.

The council last week debated requiring that people get a permit to prune a specimen tree if the branch being cut has 4-inch diameter at 12 inches away from the trunk. The $124 fee would apply to that, too. (A permit is required for any pruning of a grand tree.)

City Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin, who voted against the ordinance, said many people in her central Tampa district could not afford to pay the permitting fee or the subsequent fines for failure to do so.

Michelini said he doubts that a homeowner out working in the yard on a weekend is going to stop and get a permit — at $124 — to prune a specimen tree.

"You're going to make everybody potentially a violator of that code,'' he said.

He also raised the question of whether the city would have to hire more inspectors to enforce the pruning ordinance. Coyle and Beck said the staff is working on a program that would allow licensed arborists to submit affidavits stating that they pruned the tree according to methods set by the American National Standards Institute.

The council plans to take another look at the ordinance in six months to see if any changes need to be made.

Contact Philip Morgan at or (813) 226-3435.