Should local governments be allowed to regulate tree removal?

Jacksonville's current ordinance requires permits to cut, trim protected trees

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Jonathan Stacey - Meteorologist

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Two bills being considered in the Florida Legislature would block local tree protection ordinances, a move that environmentalists are hoping to prevent.

If House Bill 521 and Senate Bill 574 become law, Jacksonville property owners would no longer have to go through a permit process to cut down or trim a tree. 

But Jacksonville environmentalists say the legislation could have a major affect on the city's canopies and forests.

John November, a lawyer with the Public Trust and Environmental Institute, said the legislation drafted by Sarasota Sen. Greg Steube and state Broward Rep. Katie Edwards would give private contractors the authority to do whatever they want with their land, eliminating local oversight that’s already in place. 

“In Jacksonville, we have really well-established local protections for trees, and if this bill passed, we would lose all those protections,” November said.

Steube told the Tallahassee Democrat the he stumbled on the tree issue when he built a three-car garage and learned he had to pull a permit to clear trees on his own property. He reportedly said the bill would better protect private property rights. Steube has not responded to requests for comment from News4Jax.

DOCUMENT : Jacksonville's Tree Protection ordinance 

Proponents said the bills would also ease regulations after situations like the state faced with Hurricane Irma when trees where felled across Florida. JEA said 96 percent of the power outages in its grid during Hurricane Irma were caused by downed trees.

But at a Jacksonville rally Monday, environmentalists said the bills create a slippery slope that could undo protections that have kept the city green, despite development.

“When a developer feels the need to want to take those trees down, there are funding mechanisms to support the planting of trees elsewhere to mitigate those losses,” said Tom Larson of the Sierra Club.

Before planting trees at a park along San Jose Boulevard, the environmentalists touted a new online database called Jax Digs Trees, where citizens can be watchdogs for land development. 

One of Florida's most prominent environmental advocacy groups also opposes the bills.

In a statement 1000 Friends of Florid​a wrote:

These bills would preempt to the state regulation of the trimming, removal, or harvesting of trees. If these bills become law, no local government in Florida would have the ability to restrict a landowner in trimming or removing trees. Likewise, no local government in Florida would have the ability to require mitigation for a landowner trimming or removing trees.

Trees are an important part of Florida communities. Trees improve the property value of nearby homes and businesses. Trees provide an important cooling affect, especially in urban areas. Trees slow rainwater, helping storm sewers and reducing flood risk. Trees clean air reducing both carbon dioxide and particulate matter.

Most significantly, trees have natural beauty providing immeasurable benefit to the people living near them.

Whether and how communities regulate tree removal should be a local question. Some communities may choose not to regulate trees because they do not face development pressure or are sparsely developed.

Other communities may choose to strictly regulate tree removal because they highly value their tree canopy and would risk losing it without rules to protect it.
 
In any case, each Florida community should be able to consider the benefits of its tree canopy and determine for itself whether and how to protect it. Both SB 574 and HB 521 would ban any local community from making these decisions and instead impose a statewide bar on rules that would protect Florida’s towns’ tree canopies.

The bills are currently being reviewed in committee. They would go into effect in July if they pass.

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