County cultivates tree preservation ordinance

After two previous work sessions, Orange County Commission heard a proposed framework for a new tree preservation ordinance.

Photo courtesy of Orange County
Photo courtesy of Orange County
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Orange County is exploring the possibility of a new tree preservation ordinance. 

The County Commission in August 2022 heard a proposed framework for a new tree preservation ordinance presented by Alan Marshall, assistant to the director in the planning, environmental and development services department for Orange County government.

The ordinance, championed by District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson, began after complaints regarding indiscriminate clearing, difficulties implementing current code, and leadership in sustainability and resilience surfaced. 

Because of the abundance of information, the discussion was split into two previous work sessions.

Marshall, who is spearheading the effort, gave an update on where the ordinance stands now.

“Our busy agenda has caused some delays in drafting the new code, but I expect we should be getting a clear picture of how this lays out in code standards in the next two months,” he said. “Stakeholder engagement on that draft will be the next step.”


The county’s current tree ordinance in place was adopted in 2001, and the previous ordinance was from 1985. After she was elected, Wilson said one of her goals was to revisit the ordinance.

One of her first meetings was with Jeff Benavides, who was at the time the chief of sustainability and resiliency. Benavides suggested gathering all of the information on the existing tree preservation and removal process and seeing if they could find places where there were opportunities to make improvements.

“For this generation and for the generations that come after, it’s a responsibility to be able to preserve especially our historic canopy,” Wilson said. “But where we’ve removed, we need to plant, because even if I’m not there for the shade that that provides, my children’s children will benefit from that. Coming into office during what was a time where I think we were really looking at a lot of spaces differently, we were looking at outdoor spaces as being so critical to quality of life, and we were looking at health care in a different way. One of the things we know about trees is that trees are the perfect filter for air, they lower the temperature. … There are social connections that even come from having the tree canopy, which is so critical. The value is really multilayered.”

The first discussion, held in October 2021, addressed the value and the role of trees in the community. The grounding discussion reviewed what trees and canopy mean to both Orange County and the region as a whole. The discussion also focused on the language in the current comprehensive plan and the code.

“Largely, there’s good language there that protection of trees is essential, we should be controlling, clearing when possible, identifying and trying to put value to certain more mature trees, and prohibit indiscriminate clearing…things of that nature,” Marshall said. “Those words are in there. It just doesn’t play out so much within the code language.”

The session also showcased data collected from an array of studies. 

The second session, held in January 2022, addressed issues within the current code and the county’s mass-grading process. 

“Probably the two biggest issues there was that from a couple of places in the code, a majority of the trees on a particular site are excluded or exempted from the code,” Marshall said. “So when you look at the impact of trees coming out versus mitigation that might go back in, a lot of those trees that come out just aren’t mitigated for it. There’s no permit required, or no mitigation required for replanting. Then there were mitigation caps on top of that per property.”

Other issues included that there were no specific standards for preservation, the criteria to justify tree removal is overly broad and tree preservation data may not exist on all site plans.


The August meeting covered the framework discussion for the current tree ordinance. Topics included the stakeholder engagement process, proposed framework, contemporaneous efforts and actions, and next steps.

In terms of the stakeholder engagement process, Marshall said the team started with organizing a series of two-hour work group sessions. 

“We knew that we had the development industry; we knew we had the planners and site designers and the environmental advocates out there,” he said. “But we also want to talk to the nursery growers, because this is where the stock is going to come from. If we change our standards we need to make sure that there’s available stock out there that can serve that need. So we reached out to those groups and said put together a team for us. We didn’t want to hand-pick these groups.”

At the same time, the team stayed up to date with advisory boards such as the Environmental Protection Commission and the Sustainability Advisory Board.

Regarding a proposed framework, the team focused on an objective to “create a regulatory framework that allows developers to design site plans that provide appropriate tree preservation for various land-use types, along with effective mitigation when trees are removed,” according to the presentation. 

Key changes to achieve the objective include defining high-value trees, developing standards per development type, adjusting mitigation caps and focusing on biodiversity.

Outside of the tree code, contemporaneous efforts and actions are taking place to combat some of the issues such as mass grading.

Marshall said the Development Review Committee is putting standard comments in their review that have to be answered. Public works is requesting additional information to improve review criteria and limit accidental damage to preserved trees.


Since the last meeting, Marshall and staff have been taking direction and advice from the board to finalize a draft code.

County Commissioner Christine Moore asked that the ordinance address issues related to trees on individual properties and guidance for property owners. Commissioner Mayra Uribe inquired on reinforcement of the revised ordinance. She was concerned about stepping into individual properties and finding the staff to do it. 

As far as local municipalities, Wilson said Orange County charter does speak to environmental regulation that if the county’s environmental regulation is more stringent, it is the prevailing regulation. If a municipal environmental regulation is more stringent, then it is the prevailing regulation. 

“Windermere, Winter Garden, Oakland — all my municipalities — have done a very good job of evaluating their own tree-protection ordinance and their own tree-removal process,” she said. “The county can learn a lot from the way they (Windermere) have been able to protect their canopy and the way that they do their evaluation on the value of trees. The other part that the county did wrong for such a long time, and we just have to reframe it, is the classification of the trees really prohibited protection.”



Annabelle Sikes

News Editor Annabelle Sikes was born in Boca Raton and moved to Orlando in 2018 to attend the University of Central Florida. She graduated from UCF in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. Her past journalism experiences include serving as a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel, a reporter at The Community Paper, managing editor for NSM Today, digital manager at Centric Magazine and as an intern for the Orlando Weekly.

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