WATCHDOG: Are we lumbered with bad tree law?


Gainesville resident Dale Syfert walks by the tree trunk of what was a 50-75 foot tall sweetgum tree outside his northwest Gainesville home on Monday.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 12:08 a.m.

Dale Syfert said Gainesville officials are treating the city's tree ordinance like the game show "Let's Make a Deal."

Facts

Tree ordinance meeting

Gainesville's Tree Advisory Board meets today to discuss possible changes to the tree ordinance. The meeting is at 4 p.m. at the Florida Community Design Center, Suite 110, 300 E. University Ave. For more information on the ordinance, go online to www.cityofgainesville.org/gov/municode.shtml. The ordinance falls under section 30-254.

Last summer, Syfert approached the city department that implements the tree ordinance about removing a sweetgum at his northwest Gainesville home. He claims he was misquoted parts of the ordinance and misled about his obligations.

This month he planted two trees and bought another six trees for the city as mitigation, but believes he should have been allowed to remove the diseased tree without penalty.

"To me, there's an element of a shakedown in this," he said.

The city's arborist agrees the ordinance was not followed to the letter of the law, but said if anything she was too lenient with him. The chairman of the city's tree advisory board pointed out that Syfert failed to take advantage of an appeals process.

His story spotlights problems with a complex ordinance that is full of exemptions and caveats, sometimes drawing criticism from both tree lovers and skeptics of regulation. The city's tree advisory board meets today to discuss possible changes to the ordinance.

The revisions could clear up ambiguities in the ordinance, but the board's main goals are boosting protections for large native species called heritage trees and better ensuring replacement trees are equivalent to those removed, said Jack Putz, a University of Florida botany professor and board chairman.

Putz said the ordinance has failed to fully protect the tree canopy in a place declared one of the nation's tree cities. He pointed to statistics from UF forestry researchers that showed the city's tree canopy lost 10 percent of its cover from 1994 to 2005.

"They've made it too easy to replace a large, valuable tree with a bunch of small trees that are not as valuable," he said.

The tree ordinance requires homeowners to plant two trees for every tree they remove. But a host of exemptions and caveats adds layers of confusion for some residents.

The ordinance covers trees at least eight inches in diameter or two feet in circumference, whichever dimension is smaller, at a point 4 1/2 feet above ground level. But slash and loblolly pines are regulated at a larger size, while healthy native trees large enough to be labeled as heritage must be replaced on an inch-for-inch basis.

The strictest regulations apply to homes in planned developments, but the ordinance doesn't include a list of those developments. The law covers trees only in the legal setbacks on the property, which vary depending on the neighborhood.

Putz said some of the ordinance's complexities are necessary, reflecting the varying importance of different tree species. He said a bigger failing is the ordinance's lack of protections for heritage trees, such as requiring chain-link fencing to protect root zones and issuing penalties when trees are damaged.

"The developers are long gone and people are having trees die in their yards," he said.

Syfert said he sees a different set of problems. He said parks department staff, who oversee the ordinance, gave him confusing and sometimes conflicting information.

He said he wanted to remove the gum tree because parts of it were hollow and could have toppled on his home. Because the ordinance regulates only live trees and exempts trees that threaten homes, he believes he could have been rightly exempted.

Instead, the gum was counted as four trees - because the trunk spilt into four separate trunks. He said he was initially told to plant 16 trees and later had the number reduced to eight, but resisted because he believed the trees would overcrowd his yard.

City arborist Meg Niederhofer allowed Syfert to plant two trees and donate six others to the city. Syfert paid $180 to plant a 15-gallon magnolia and live oak in his yard and another $18 to buy six one-gallon shade trees for the city.

He questions the legitimacy of the arrangement.

"If this a city ordinance, then why are we playing 'Let's Make a Deal'?" he asked.

Niederhofer said the tree was counted as four because each trunk could be measured separately at 4 1/2 feet above ground. She said the tree should have qualified as heritage - a fact he disputes - and required him to plant all the trees in his yard.

She admits parts of the ordinance are vague and said the advisory board might consider revising some language.

"That's the problem with the code - it was written by lawyers and we are supposed to interpret it," she said.

Some builders say the ordinance complicates the way they do business. Brian Leslie, president of the Builders Association of North Central Florida, called the ordinance cumbersome and questioned the need for additional regulations.

"We're definitely not in favor of more regulations, but we're definitely in favor of saving as many trees as we possibly can," he said.

Others view the tree ordinance as working properly. Bill Gaston, founder of Gaston's Tree Service, said the city has an "amazing" tree canopy due in part to the fact that most people realize the value of trees.

"Most homeowners are not going to just start cutting down good trees," he said.

Niederhofer said the ordinance might be confusing but represents the community's effort to protect its most significant trees.

"It's a tough balancing act, because people's homes are their castles, but trees provide benefits for the entire community," she said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville sun.com.

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