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Safety Harbor proposes tree removal moratorium

SAFETY HARBOR — City commissioners are working as fast as they can to protect trees.

Elected leaders told city staffers Monday to start drafting language for a moratorium on tree removal while they finish work on an ordinance that strengthens existing tree protection rules. The moratorium would expire April 1 unless the new tree ordinance is passed sooner.

The proposed ban comes amid protests over last month's removal of 14 trees by the privately owned Safety Harbor Resort and Spa to make way for a parking lot.

Safety Harbor's current ordinance protects only grand trees of a certain size. So the resort, which city officials say had been considering the project since at least 2005, applied for and was granted permission from Pinellas County. The spa is now pursuing permits to cut down 13 more trees it says are dead, dying or hazardous.

The project has fueled weeks of protests by a vocal contingent of residents who call the destruction of healthy trees an affront to the environment and the city's charm. They picketed in front of the spa, gathered nearly 400 petition signatures and called for a temporary ban.

About 80 people — roughly 50 of them tree advocates who chanted with signs in front of the spa before marching to City Hall to wave at honking motorists — packed commission chambers Monday for the moratorium discussion.

Nearly 20 people publicly spoke in favor of the moratorium, which would not be applied retroactively to the spa or any other application pending before the county. It also would not prohibit the removal of trees the county defines as dead or diseased or those that pose a risk to the public's health and safety.

"Are we going to sell out to the developers and let them determine the makeup of what the city looks like?" asked Dave Conkle.

Three opponents, though, decried the ban's potential impact on the property rights of individual homeowners who would be barred from simple jobs like installing a backyard pool. They also feared harassment from neighbors who might disagree with an arborist's assessment of a dead or dying tree on their property.

Commissioners Richard Blake and Carlos Diaz initially sided with the dissenters.

"Let's fast-track a solution rather than shutting down the city for God knows how long," Blake said.

Added Diaz: "I don't think we have business applying anger and imposing a blanket moratorium when most people are law-abiding citizens who care about trees."

But Mayor Andy Steingold, Vice Mayor Cliff Merz and Commissioner Andy Zodrow said the moratorium would let elected leaders and residents put aside emotions and worry as they work together on a years-old request that the city tweak its ordinance to expand authority to all trees within city limits.

In the months before the spa controversy erupted, commissioners spent several workshops modeling new tree rules based on ordinances from Dunedin, Tarpon Springs and other cities nationwide.

Safety Harbor's new ordinance is expected to address things like replanting rules and fines.

"There's pros and cons to the moratorium, but the nice thing is it gives us the time to do it right," Merz said before commissioners agreed that the staff could move forward with drafting a moratorium ordinance. It is slated to be voted on next month.

The city will accept comments about its proposed new tree rules at tree.feedback@cityofsafetyharbor.com and will hold a town hall meeting in November. The Planning and Zoning Board is slated to give its recommendation in December or January. The City Commission is expected to hold public hearings and vote in January and February.

Contact Keyonna Summers at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @KeyonnaSummers.

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