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Builders and tree advocates agreed on how to protect Tampa's canopy, but new legislation could gut their efforts.

Tampa's tree ordinance, a historic compromise, was approved by the City Council in April. A proposed state law awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis' signature would gut most of it.  [Times  (2018]
Tampa's tree ordinance, a historic compromise, was approved by the City Council in April. A proposed state law awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis' signature would gut most of it. [Times (2018]
Published May 8, 2019

TAMPA — Trees were a battleground issue for years at Tampa City Hall before council members last month approved an historic compromise between builders and tree advocates.

A week later, state lawmakers passed a property rights bill that is likely to remove much of its impact.

Though still awaiting the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis, House Bill 1159 would stop Tampa from doing much of what the ordinance set out to do. Local governments would be barred from regulating the removal, replanting, pruning or trimming of a tree on private property if a licensed arborist determines the tree poses a danger.

Assistant City Attorney Kristin Mora said the legislation, set to take effect June 1, would remove the city's arborists from the role of verifying dangerous trees and being involved in the pruning of trees through the permitting process.

"In addition, we anticipate that there will be instances where trees are improperly removed, but the city will be left without recourse or a method for mitigation or replanting," Mora wrote in an email.

READ MORE: Tampa reaches historic compromise on trees

READ MORE: The ins and outs of Tampa's tree ordinance

Chelsea Johnson, founder of Tree Something, Say Something, a tree advocacy group, says the proposed law would open the door to decimation of the city's tree canopy, which has won national awards.

"It allows for abuse by crooked characters," she said. "I think the public would be really alarmed if they were aware of this."

The city's efforts to protect its trees dates back to the early 1970s. Joe Chillura was the council member who wrote the original ordinance.

"This bill is going to emasculate everything we've done," Chillura said.

Chillura and Johnson have written letters to DeSantis urging the governor not to sign the bill into law. Johnson said she hoped DeSantis' early indications of his environmental leanings would extend to trees.

Calls to the bill's sponsors, Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud and Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, were not returned.

Before the city reached its agreement last month, consultant Steve Michelini, who represents home builders, said he supported the overall effort, but objected to a provision in the Tampa ordinance requiring property owners to obtain a $124 permit to prune many mature trees, even if they weren't considered grand or protected.

On Wednesday, Michelini said he thinks the Tampa ordinance, which was scheduled to be reviewed in October to gauge its effectiveness, was a good compromise. But he suspects overzealous regulations elsewhere in the state triggered the preemption.

"People try to comply, but when they run into unreasonable expectations and applications of the rules, they get mad and push back," he said.

In broad terms, Tampa's ordinance gives builders and property owners more flexibility in locating a house on a lot that has a grand tree, mostly by reducing some setbacks. It also streamlines the appeal and inspection process. And it recasts a tree fund where developers who cut down trees and can't replant them contribute money to plant trees throughout the city.

Johnson vowed to load up a van full of tree advocates and head to the state Capitol if necessary to preserve Tampa's tree protections.

"This will usurp what was a fantastic compromise," she said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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