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  1. Opinion

Cut down trees? Pay up, Tampa says. Good. | Editorial

The Florida Legislature made it easier for residents to cut down trees without permission from local government. Now everybody wants to do it.

The city of Tampa has sent exactly the right message by imposing the largest fine possible for the destruction of dozens of trees on Gandy Boulevard. This is what happens when state lawmakers intrude into local territory with a needless, sloppily written law that all but bars cities and counties from preventing the wholesale clear-cutting of trees. Tampa should aggressively defend its tree protections and work with other local governments to halt this abuse.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Charlie Frago reported Wednesday, tree advocates protested last month when loggers chainsawed more than two dozen trees at a dilapidated trailer park in South Tampa. A new state law that took effect July 1 bars local governments from requiring an application, permit or fee for the removal of a dangerous tree on residential property. But this week, the city served notice it is seeking $420,000 in fines from the property owner, Life O’Reilly MHP, LLC, and an equal amount from Miller & Sons, LLC, the company whose arborists signed off on the tree clearing at 3011 W. Gandy Blvd. The combined fine of $840,000 is believed to be the largest for tree cutting in the city’s history.

An attorney for the property owner said the tree-cutting is legal because people have resided on the site for decades. But City Attorney Gina Grimes said the owner and arborist “exploited the statutory preemption for their own private gain to clear-cut the site for commercial re-development.” The new law applies only to residential property. But the Gandy site is zoned commercial general - not residential - and has no homestead exemption, according to Hillsborough County property and tax records. “The city of Tampa has one of the largest tree canopies in the world and arborists and developers should not take that for granted,” Mayor Jane Castor said in a statement. “We are closely monitoring this egregious violation and will fine those violating our policies aggressively moving forward.''

Of course, this is the predictable result of the Legislature’s insistence at meddling in local issues. While lawmakers claimed they were responding to inflexible rules by local governments, the reality is that cities statewide, including Tampa and St. Petersburg, have managed to balance property rights with reasonable tree protections. The new law tilts the scale almost entirely to property owners and their hired arborists to determine which trees present “a danger to persons or property" and can be removed. The law doesn’t even bother to define what a “danger” is or means.

Local governments across Florida are grappling with ways to salvage their tree ordinances in the face of this blanket assault. The Tampa case goes to a magistrate in October. The Castor administration should be commended for strongly defending a natural resource that provides shade, cleaner air and flood protection. Cities and counties need to hold property owners to the letter of this bad law. And they need to compile their horror stories for the next legislative session. The new state law is an invitation to scar every Florida community and should be repealed.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news