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Is Tampa’s tree canopy shrinking because of a change in state law?

The 2019 law barred the city from enforcing much of its vaunted tree code. City officials expect an upcoming analysis to show a diminished tree canopy.
Tampa's tree ordinance was preempted by a state law in 2019. The city's senior forester says an upcoming analysis of the city's canopy will likely show a reduction in coverage, in part because of the law.  [Times files]
Tampa's tree ordinance was preempted by a state law in 2019. The city's senior forester says an upcoming analysis of the city's canopy will likely show a reduction in coverage, in part because of the law. [Times files]
Published Jan. 3
Updated Jan. 3

TAMPA —Tree advocates and builders reached what was called a historic compromise on protecting the city’s award-winning tree canopy in the spring of 2019. A week later, a new state law gutted much of Tampa’s and other local governments’ power to set rules about tree removals.

Related: Tampa tree accord squashed by state

At the time, exasperated city officials and advocates raised concerns about the law’s provisions allowing grand trees to be cut down as long as a certified arborist or landscape architect signed off, cutting city inspectors out of the process. Some large-scale removals that summer ratcheted up their fears.

Related: Dozens of trees cut on Gandy Boulevard, prompting howls from advocates and city

Nearly three years later the city hopes to figure out if those fears were justified.

Brian Knox, the city’s senior forester examiner, says an upcoming analysis of the city’s canopy is planned for release in 2022. A similar analysis in 2016 found 32 percent of the city covered by tree canopy.

And while the data isn’t in yet, Knox has a pretty good idea what it will say.

“I expect we will see a decline in the canopy,” Knox said.

It’s not just the state law, he said. Tampa’s hot development streak has also taken a toll as new houses or commercial developments often require the removal of mature shade trees. Although they’re often replaced with younger trees (developers can also pay into a city tree-planting fund as an alternative), it can often take at least a decade for the canopy to be replenished.

Still, the state’s preemption of the city’s tree code, in place since the early 1970s, has likely had an effect, Knox said. How much of one is hard to know since the law has no provision for a property owner to inform the city if trees are removed because they’re deemed dangerous to persons or property.

“We really don’t have a way to monitor the information. We can’t really factor the trees that are removed in our decision making,” Knox said. “That’s the part that makes it difficult.”

Taking her dog on daily walks through Davis Islands about six years ago first made Lorraine Parrino aware of the disappearing canopy in her neighborhood as mid-century homes were being replaced with much larger ones. She’s since become active in the Tampa Tree Advocacy Group or T-TAG.

Parrino says she has seen ample evidence of healthy trees being taken down. And she thinks not only the state law, but a city government that has streamlined permits and other development-related tasks are responsible.

“Between one thing and another we’re losing a lot of trees,” she said. ““We’re really flying blind.”

That’s not Steve Michelini’s impression. The longtime local consultant was heavily involved as a developer’s representative in the 2019 compromise. He says he actively monitors the city’s canopy on Google Earth and doesn’t see any diminishment.

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“I don’t think the floodgates have been opened,” Michelini said.

What is often missing from the debate, he said, is that developers are still required to plant or pay for new trees when they cut down existing ones. And while that won’t immediately replenish the canopy, it will over time.

Parrino points to developers replacing oaks with palms, which don’t provide much in the way of shade or pollution reduction.

Michelini disagrees, saying that the city’s tree code penalizes that behavior by requiring several palms to be planted to replace a deciduous hardwood.

What is certain to City Council member Guido Maniscalco is that trees are a passion point among many residents in Florida’s third-largest city. Since being elected in 2015, Maniscalco has listened to hours of testimony and arguments from both sides. He still laments the state preemption of that “historic” compromise, which allowed builders more flexibility to build in return for more commitments to replenish and maintain the canopy.

“We had come together in some kind of agreement without adversaries,” Maniscalco said. “We thought we created a matrix where it worked for everybody and the tree canopy was protected.”

Since then, the issue has “kind of faded away,” he said, but he remembers the stakes and the emotion.

One power that the council retains is requiring developers to make trees a priority when they submit their site plans. Council members have delayed projects that haven’t made that consideration, Maniscalco said, which is never an outcome desired by builders burdened by rising construction costs and other expenses.

“We have to makes sure we’re not blanket approving everything,” Maniscalco said. “Just having the conversation on council during these zoning meetings. We need to show we’re not reckless, show we’re paying attention. We just have to take it on a case-by-case basis.”

Knox, the city’s forester, said that Tampa has another stick, if needed. If the city finds a tree that has been removed improperly on the orders of an arborist, it can report that arborist to the International Society of Aboriculture, the main accrediting organization for arborists.

And, although it can’t systematically track how many trees are being removed under the provisions of the state law, a recent reorganization of city departments makes employees better able to respond to resident reports of suspicious activity, allowing examiners to get to the scene more quickly, Knox said.

“The citizens are our eyes and ears. When they alert us to something, we respond,” he said.

If the tree cutters don’t have the proper paperwork from an arborist or landscape architect, code enforcement will be alerted to pursue a violation, he said.

Parrino remains skeptical that’s happening often enough. And she worries that the city’s trees are falling victim to developers’ desire for profits by building bigger homes right up to the property lines. Eventually, she said, one of Tampa’s calling cards, its shady, tree-lined streets, will be gone. So will the city’s ability to offset rising temperatures and soak up pollution.

“This affects everyone. It’s not just a matter of aesthetics,” she said.

Want to find a certified arborist and other tree-related resources? Knox suggests these websites: www.treesaregood.org and www.tampa.gov/construction-services/tree-information.