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Tampa tree cutting spat headed to an appeals court

A Tampa tree cutting firm was fined nearly a quarter-million dollars after cutting down 28 trees in 2019 at a Gandy Boulevard trailer park.
Nearly three dozen trees were cut down at a half-abandoned trailer park along Gandy Boulevard this week, enraging tree advocates and sparking another battle between the city of Tampa and a new state law that removes local government authority over tree removal. [CHARLIE FRAGO | Times]
Nearly three dozen trees were cut down at a half-abandoned trailer park along Gandy Boulevard this week, enraging tree advocates and sparking another battle between the city of Tampa and a new state law that removes local government authority over tree removal. [CHARLIE FRAGO | Times]
Published Nov. 27, 2020

A family-owned tree cutting firm, fined a record amount by the city of Tampa after clear cutting more than two dozen trees last year, is hoping to reverse that decision in an appeals court.

Miller & Sons, a Tampa tree-cutting business, filed notice of appeal earlier this month. At issue is the interpretation of a 2019 state law that prohibits local governments from regulating tree cutting on residential property.

In August 2019, Miller & Sons cut 28 trees at a dilapidated trailer park at 3010 W. Gandy Blvd. The city levied a record $840,000 fine, which was appealed to a city code enforcement magistrate. In October, the magistrate ruled in the city’s favor and assessed a $234,427.50 fine.

Ruiz also fined Miller & Sons and a property owner $6,373 each for chopping down one tree on Schiller Street in South Tampa.

On Wednesday, Mayor Jane Castor’s spokeswoman, Ashley Bauman, said the city would fight on at the appeals court level.

“The mayor and City Council have given direction to the legal department to vehemently defend to the fullest extent of the law the decision of the code enforcement special magistrate that found Miller & Sons in violation of the city’s tree code ordinance,” Bauman texted.

Jonathan Lee, one of the owners of Miller & Sons, didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Neither did his attorney, Lindsay C.T. Holt of Tavares, who filed the notice of appeal on Nov. 6.

In October, Lee told the Tampa Bay Times that he planned to enlist the help of Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Howey-in-the-Hills Republican who has been active in advocating for greater state control over property rights issues. But Sabatini, an attorney, said Wednesday he hadn’t been asked to help in the appeals case.

Tampa’s tree ordinance has been a hot-button topic for several years now in Florida’s third-largest city. First, developers and tree advocates squared off over proposed changes to the 1972 ordinance, which has been hailed as the primary reason why Tampa’s tree canopy has received international acclaim. A compromise between builders and advocates in early 2019 was soon rendered nearly moot by the state law.

A few months later, Miller & Sons cut the trees at the Gandy trailer park, and the city fined the firm and the property’s owner, who later settled with the city.

In recent months, other tree cutting incidents have enraged advocates and revived the debate over who controls tree cutting — the city or state.

A project on S. West Shore Boulevard was halted because developers didn’t secure the necessary permits before beginning to cut trees, which sent snakes and animals scurrying into nearby streets and yards.