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Who decides if a tree is dangerous? Tampa at odds with Tallahassee over new tree law

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 Aug. 15

TAMPA—When buzzing chainsaws started cutting into the big Spanish-moss draped trees in a small beat-up trailer park on Gandy Boulevard, word spread quickly among Tampa's tree advocates. City code enforcement officials arrived, citing the tree crew for working without a permit while activists snapped photos. Eventually, police arrived to keep order and everyone safe from falling limbs.

The drama highlighted a battle emerging between cities like Tampa and state lawmakers in Tallahassee around this question: Do cities have any control over how trees are removed?

One of the law's architects, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Howey-in-the-Hills Republican, released a letter last week asserting that local governments had zero role in determining if a tree is dangerous.

"The designation of a tree as 'dangerous' is made solely by the arborist or landscape architect in their professional opinion and expertise, and is not to be supplemented, controlled or effected in any way by a local government," Sabatini wrote.

City Attorney Gina Grimes has a different take. She said the city will follow the law, but needs documentation from a certified arborist or landscape architect documented a tree poses a danger to people or property.

"We need to have the documents. We can't force them to give them to us. But if we don't have them, then we have to assume they're removing it illegally," Grimes said.

Jonathan Lee, the certified arborist who evaluated the trees on the Gandy property on behalf on an unidentified developer, has yet another interpretation. He says the law doesn't allow him to certify a tree is dangerous, but only to assess the risk level. The decision whether to remove a tree is left up to the property owner.

"If someone thinks a healthy tree that hangs over their children's bedroom is dangerous, that's up to them," Lee said.

It's the latest salvo in a ongoing dispute between property owners and environmentalists over the city's touted tree canopy that has raged for years. Before the new law took effect July 1, builders and homeowners complained that city regulations were too stringent. Advocates resisted changing the city's early 1970s ordinance, which they said protected Tampa's trees from being cut down for redevelopment. The two sides reached a compromise in April only to have their work nullified by the state.

But city officials say they're going to enforce the law they say they still control. They cited the tree removal company, Tampa's Miller & Sons, for working without permits. The property is also zoned commercial general — not residential — making it fall outside of the law's scope, which only regulates residential properties, Grimes said.

The case is now headed to a code enforcement special magistrate. And she said the Gandy cutting is a "poor example" of the new law, saying she didn't see proper documentation from Lee.

Lee disagrees, saying said he conducted a thorough evaluation of the property's trees and recommended that three grand oaks in good condition remain in place. He says the city has been aware of the cuttings for some time and is acting out of pique, misrepresenting his findings.

"They're upset that they've lost their power," Lee said.

Chelsea Johnson, who founded the tree advocacy group that was instrumental in brokering a compromise with builders, said she was angry that the city doesn't have any process in place to stop tree cuttings that may be illegal or without proper documentation.

"Unfortunately, you can't glue them back together," Johnson said. "The city needs to step up to bat to defend our canopy. No tree is safe in Tampa."

County property appraiser records show a St. Pete-based LLC, Life O'Reilly MHP, as the parcel's owner. Lee said the LLC's owner is working with a developer, who he declined to name. An attempt to rezone the property to allow for 80 residential units and 700-square-feet of office space was shot down by City Council in June, although that decision can still be appealed, Grimes said.

Mark Bentley, the attorney who represented the developer who previously had a contract on the property before City Council in June, told the Times Tuesday that he couldn't provide any information on ownership. That developer, Blue Line Residential, LLC, no longer has a contract on the property.

Life O'Reilly, which listed a St. Petersburg P.O Box as an address, couldn't be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Joe Chillura, the author of the city's original tree ordinance, cheered council members Bill Carlson and John Dingfelder, who asked Grimes to explore joining other cities in challenging the law in court. Carlson said a legal resolution is a better avenue to fight than trying to change Tallahassee's mind by political persuasion.

"They're inhibiting American democracy by preventing people from living the way they want to in their own communities," Carlson said.

Editor's note: Attorney Mark Bentley represented Blue Line Residential, LLC before the Tampa City Council in June. The original version of this story incorrectly identified the party represented by Bentley.

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

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