New proposal puts localized tree protections in Florida in jeopardy

Bill would abolish local and county rules

SARASOTA, Fla. - The rules protecting large, historic trees are now in jeopardy. A new bill proposed to the Florida Legislature would, if passed, ban cities and counties in Florida from regulating tree trimming.

Tree trimming regulation is popular and commonplace in cities looking to preserve tree canopy and the positive environmental benefits of a healthy amount of trees, sometimes historic in nature, including cities like Tampa, Sarasota, and Tallahassee.

The person who is proposing a change to the rules says he just wants to empower private citizens to make the changes they want to their own personal property.

State Senator Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) tells ABC Action News that the bill, SB 574, was inspired in part by his own experience of needing a permit to cut down trees on his own Sarasota County property, as well as burying the tree debris on his property.

Steube is one of many homeowners over the years to express frustration over changes that can be made to the landscaping on one's own property, as well as unexpected costs associated with getting a permit and removing trees based on localized standards, which can change from town to town.

The language of Steube's bill would leave the right to regulate trees only with the state, and taking away power from localized elected officials.

“Some of this stuff has gotten over the top,” says Steube, who is openly questioning why he or anyone else should need to confer with the government to get approval for something as simple as taking a tree down.

Sen. Steube says he doesn't want his proposal to interfere with anything as drastic as wetland mitigation or comprehensive land-use plans for entire communities, bu rather to simply free up residents to cut trees on their own property.

Sen. Steube says he’s also heard complaints from residents about the outstandingly high fines people have been leveed for breaking the rules; some people say they’ve been fined as much as $10,000 or even $16,000.

But Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen says the fines are sometimes high precisely because it seems to take a powerful punishment to dissuade people from breaking the news.

Cohen adds that he is "disgusted" by the proposal.

"We work very hard on our tree ordinances," Cohen tells ABC Action News, saying they factor in tree removal regulations when considering how to maintain good air quality, and maintain a healthy storm-water system.

What’s more, it would take away local control of the closely-studied and closely-monitored issue, says Cohen.

Tampa has been regulated and protecting trees since 1897; all trees 5 inches in diameter or greater are protected by the City of Tampa, which means permits for removal must be obtained in advance.

Also, all cypress and mangrove trees, regardless of size, also require a permit for removal.

Rules such as this would be eliminated in Tampa and elsewhere in the state if the rule was passed.

"This would have widespread effects and it would be devastating," he added.

The proposal will be first considered by the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee of the Florida Senate. If passed, the act would take effect July 1, 2018.

Steube says he's already found a sponsor for the bill in the Florida House of Representatives and expects his idea will at the very least be seriously considered in committee.

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