Tree burn reignites debate on Windsong

Developers and town officials cite state law as allowing the burn, but Windermere neighbors want it halted.

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  • | 11:22 a.m. November 18, 2015
Smoke billows from tree burns on the Windsong at Windermere site.
Smoke billows from tree burns on the Windsong at Windermere site.
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WINDERMERE  The flames have not, but a debate about the legality of tree burns on the Windsong at Windermere property has engulfed surrounding neighborhoods.

Builder Taylor Morrison hired subcontractor Providence Construction Company to burn flora with an air curtain incinerator, a special tool intended to quickly burn debris in an area with little or no smoke.

But Jackie Walker, a supervisor with the Florida Forest Service, said the burn was performed incorrectly Nov. 16; the main issue was overfilling the burn pit. The Service temporarily halted burns, saying an improper incinerator was used — flames and smoke should not be seen or smelled. Furthermore, Providence personnel have burned before 9 a.m. and on weekends and said they were told they had permission, although each violates agreements with the town or state law.

But smoke continued to billow Nov. 17, residents said, with odorous pollution lingering in town, especially mere yards away in The Willows. It could stay more than a month if burning of more than 200 trees — the vast majority oaks — continues. Many residents have concerns for their health and that of the nearby respiratory-impaired and children, such as at the triangle of elementary schools Windsong is within.

Among those most fired up about the situation is Jane Guida, who lives a stone’s throw from the edge of the 36-acre Windsong property in The Willows. One aspect of Orange County Code she believes the burn violates states, “The moisture content and composition of material to be burned is favorable to good burning which will minimize smoke.” She also believes burners are using an accelerant.

"The theory behind (burning dry wood) is to oxidize the smoke and particulate so there is virtually no visible evidence of fire,” Guida said. “The big difference in our case is that the wood, shrubs, etc., are green and will carry considerable water vapor along with particulate into the atmosphere. … Using an accelerant to speed the burn of green trees in a pit may contain (toxic) chemicals.”

The property was mostly covered with green trees before burning began. Guida and many of her neighbors have asked the burning to stop, with trees being hauled from the property instead. But developers elected paying at least $84,000 in tree mitigation via their memorandum of understanding for tree removal permit with the town’s approval.

“It is my understanding that (the town) could have required that the scrub be trucked off site,” Roger Ambuter, one such neighbor, said. “This alternative was discussed in a meeting with (representatives of The Willows; Town Manager) Robert Smith; and myself.  Mr. Smith was then told by Taylor Morrison that this alternative would cost $250,000, and the burn proceeded. As an engineer, my understanding of a curtain burn is that smoke and particulate are incinerated before rising into the atmosphere – this does not seem to be the case in Windsong.”


Officials close to the development team have cited state law as upholding a controlled tree burn and believe they have burned within the law. Since the burn began on Nov. 11, town officials have agreed state law dictates the legality of the burn, with Mayor Gary Bruhn saying there is nothing town government can do to stop it.

Yet in the lengthy saga of Windermere Town Council’s judgment of Windsong, the council had several opportunities to discuss terms, spending dozens of hours negotiating. Constituent pressure mounted against the development for myriad reasons throughout 2014, spilling into now all of 2015.

First, Bruhn had an opportunity at the council meeting Oct. 14, 2014, when the vote to continue examining Windsong was split because of an absence and he had the deciding vote. He stressed that night the importance of carefully handling possibly the last large undeveloped plot in Windermere.

“We can change it next month, council,” Bruhn said in his affirming vote. “For now, yes, give the developers the opportunity to come back and re-approach us.”

Second, Theresa Schretzmann-Myers, in her position as chairwoman of the Windermere Tree Board, implored the council at its meeting Dec. 9, 2014, to arrange hauling trees in the deal between the town and developers, with specific language preventing burns.

“We’re passionate about our town because it is Windermere, and it is different from other towns with its gorgeous native tree canopy that keeps neighborhoods cool, protects our buffers of lakes and aids stormwater management,” she said at that meeting. “We are lucky to be able to walk into our backyards and see birds that come here every year and not anywhere else, because of our tree canopy.”

Allan Keen, project manager, and David Evans, lead designer and president of Evans Engineering, responded that they would replant and save as many trees as possible, just as their tree permit mandates. It also calls for planting replacement canopy with no less than one live oak on each lot.

At that meeting, every council member found some fault in the plans, but three members voted to advance the project out of fear no better developer would arise.

“I don’t believe that losing this quality developer means that there’s not going to be another one down the road,” Councilman John Armstrong, who voted against Windsong at each turn, said at that meeting. “The residents love the wildlife there, and it’s not like we’re hurting for tax revenue. What’s the drawback here? You’re worried that we’re going to have some bad developer come along if we don’t grab these guys now?”

Third, the final plan vote on Windsong at the Feb. 10 council meeting took three motions to get a three-member majority, with dissent still brooding, especially among The Willows residents.

Now those residents are asking town officials for help, but Bruhn said state law dictates matters and implored residents to contact the Florida Forest Service.

“We have no authority or standing in courts (because) the state controls this,” Bruhn wrote to residents in an email. “Contact the proper authority — the forestry division. They permit, control, monitor and license this activity. Only they have the authority to shut down the burn site if they are in violation.”

Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].


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