Winter Garden, Windermere and Oakland leaders say the proposed bill threatens tree protection laws and home-rule rights.
ORANGE COUNTY – Despite the loss of trees following Hurricane Irma last September, state Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, has introduced legislation that would remove local tree protection laws.
The proposed legislation, titled Senate Bill 574 with a companion bill titled House Bill 521, could potentially pave the way for private property owners to cut down trees with impunity.
The bill’s objective states its purpose is to prohibit local governments from regulating the “trimming, removal or harvesting of trees and timber on private property” or requiring “mitigation.”
As it stands, local tree ordinances dictate which trees private property owners need a permit to cut down and what, if any, mitigation is required. Mitigation generally involves the planting of new trees to replace existing trees or paying tree mitigation fees.
If passed, the bill would eliminate these type of ordinances, leaving behind no regulation for tree removal. Knowledge of the bill’s intent has resulted in an outcry from local elected officials who believe the bill infringes on home-rule rights and negatively impacts communities that place a high value on their tree canopies.
“We are very concerned, because we highly value the trees in Oakland,” said Oakland Town Manager Dennis Foltz. “It’s a significant part of our quality of life — not just for the town government but for the residents in the community. And I think proof of that is that whenever we have trees removed for a new development, people get very concerned, even about the pines that were planted after the orange groves left.”
Foltz emphasized that some matters, including tree removals, are more appropriately handled at the local level because it’s the government closest to the people.
Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn also argued that tree ordinances are best left to local governments.
“One of our reasons for having this ordinance is that, first of all, it prevents people from absolutely decimating the land,” he said. “And second of all, it provides a plan to replace trees in those areas that have been decimated. But if the individuals in a city or a town feel that the tree ordinances are too strict then they can let us know. But if Tallahassee controls it? Good luck. Tallahassee’s position is one size fits all.”
Winter Garden City Manager Mike Bollhoefer opposed the bill because of its infringement on home rule and the potential effects on Winter Garden’s tree canopies.
“In Winter Garden, some trees are 300, 400 or even 500 years old,” he said. “And even though they might be on private property, they still provide canopies for all these residents. You know when you drive down Lakeview Avenue, or some of those streets in Winter Garden where we have those majestic oaks? Well under this bill, people will be able to cut those down without a permit and destroy some of these canopies that make Winter Garden a great place to live.”
Bollhoefer suggested if residents from another community consider their city’s tree ordinance too strict, then they should speak with their elected officials to have them modify it.
Bruhn emphasized it is the people who live in the community who decide what laws a town will have regarding its trees. And as such, it should be up to them whether to change them, not state legislators.
“If the people of Winter Park, Winter Garden or the people of Windermere don’t like these rules, they can go to their local government and ask those rules to be changed,” Bruhn said. “Do you think if Tallahassee is going to decide the rules that they will listen to the residents of Winter Park or Windermere?”
Local leaders have an ally in Tallahassee in state Rep. Bobby Olszewski.
“I have very serious reservations if the state of Florida could successfully manage all of the nuanced preemptions in this bill,” he said. “Issues such as the removal and trimming of trees and shrubs are best handled by the government closest to the people at the local level.”
Attempts to reach Steube for comment were unsuccessful. If passed, the bill would take effect July 1.