County Commission wades through tons of info but wants more time for processing and community input

STUART ― The Martin County Commission delved into the deep thicket of developing a potential tree protection ordinance May 21, but its members eventually decided they needed further individual meetings with their outside consultant to better fine tune the idea.

Growth Management Department staff and Landscape Economist John Harris inundating the Board with facts, figures and concerns about protecting the older, more established tree covers in commercial, preserve and residential lands throughout the county. Planner Lindy Cerar emphasized the particular benefits of trees in what she referred to as “the urban forest.”

“Most of us are aware of the aesthetics the trees provide, the beautiful shapes, blossoms, shade, and the blocking of unwanted sounds and sites, but they actually do a lot more,” she said. “One acre of mature trees can provide enough oxygen for 18 people for one year and sequester the CO2 emissions of carbon dioxide from driving a car for 26,000 miles. In addition, trees absorb odors, pollutants, filter particulates by trapping these in their leaves and bark. Strategically placed, trees can reduce your electric bill 27 percent annually and 50 percent during the summer.”

Mr. Harris, who works out of Florida Atlantic University’s John Scott Daly Institute of Government, specifically warned commissioners that loopholes in current residential development needed to be addressed to further protect specimen trees, which he described as having a minimum of eight inches in trunk diameter.

“When lots are created in a residential subdivision and they come in to be cleared with building permits, there are just basic requirements to plant a minimum number of trees and to remove prohibited species,” he said. “When future lots come in for single-family building permits in this scenario, they’re exempt from most of the landscape code requirements including tree protection.

It’s also important to note that the trees required to be planted along the perimeter can be used to mitigate for the protected trees to be removed. Therefore, there is little incentive to retain larger protected trees when you get credit for the trees that you plant.”

Growth Management Department Environmental Administrator Darryl Deleeuw believes the proposed tree protection ordinance needs to include provisions and regulations for homeowner associations as well.

“Street trees that are established in residential subdivisions on private streets are managed by an HOA, typically in accordance with historically approved landscape plans providing for their locations,” he explained. “Where no landscape plan is available for an HOA, tree protection is more difficult to enforce, and this is an area where new standards would help us.”

Mr. Harris particularly emphasized the need for the county to create official documentation of its tree cover and wants to incorporate strict standards in the tree protection ordinance.

“One of the options or recommendations that we have is for the Commission to consider enacting a new tree protection standard,” he said. “Any and all trees that meet a minimum protected size, and any and all trees that exist on a property that are at or above a specimen size as of the date of it being enacted, [then] become protected under the newer revised regulation.”

He does believe, however, that property owners should have a legal avenue for tree removal and the ability to provide mitigation for the lost tree cover.

“It’s not to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to maintain their trees or remove their trees for a purpose that can be reviewed and approved, but it’s just to stop the wanton removing of trees because they drop leaves every spring and I don’t like to have the leaves on the ground, or they’re over the driveway and I’m concerned about whether or not this tree’s going to come over in a hurricane.”

Resident Landscape Architect Karen Sjoholm told the Board she occasionally gets embroiled in a neighborhood squabble over a tree due to the lack of clear and concise regulations.

“We get calls about wanting to remove a tree and we go out and often there’s one neighbor that wants to remove it because they don’t want the roots and it might tear up their driveway, and maybe the neighbor across the tree wants the aesthetics the tree provides,” she said. “The regulations as they stand now are not specific or detailed enough, so we kind of have to make a subjective decision. Sometimes they take it out and plant a small tree of the same type in its place to maintain compliance, but it’s not the same.”

Mr. Harris agreed with that assessment.

“The bottom line is the loss of trees because of people removing them either because there’s not enough enforcement or the mitigation requirements are not high enough,” he said.

After the group’s lengthy presentation, Commissioner Doug Smith still didn’t think he and his fellow Board members were ready to craft an ordinance.

“My thought is I’d like the time to spend time with you and whoever you want to bring with you to go through this whole thing again because there’s some things I agree with and some things I don’t agree with,” he said. “I think in some ways this goes way further than I thought we were going, and in some things we’re not doing enough.”

Commissioner Smith is leery of postponing the discussion too far into the future, however, and wants his fellow Board members to meet with the group individually as soon as possible, along with any other interested groups such as homeowner associations.

“My hope is that would happen much sooner and faster than later,” he added. “This is not something I think we should stall and delay, but I just want to make sure we have the time to go through it and get what I think will work and stick. I’d also broaden some of the reach because this will affect a lot of people.”

Commissioner Harold Jenkins, the commissioner who originally broached the topic of crafting a tree protection ordinance, concurred with Commissioner Smith’s concerns and expressed satisfaction with the team’s work so far.

“I agree with your concerns and that’s the work that we’ve got to do from this point, but I do want to commend Darryl and his team for getting us to the point where we’re at now,” he exclaimed. “It’s amazing, and it’s exactly where I was going when I first brought this up. And it has evolved way beyond simply protecting heritage trees, but it’s had to, and it’s needed. I just want to commend you because we’ve come a long way and we have a long way to go, I recognize that.”

Commissioner Sarah Heard concurred with Commissioner Smith’s goal of proceeding quickly, and Chairman Ed Ciampi suggested allowing Commissioner Jenkins to take the lead on the matter that he believed would be better discussed the next time in a workshop setting.

“It will require some additional meetings behind the scenes,” he said. “As a suggestion, I’d recommend that Commissioner Jenkins, who’s got the professional background, be our lead in this. When it does come back, maybe you’d want to have a workshop separate from a county commission meeting because I agree with Commissioner Smith: This is hours of conversation that might be necessary.”

For his part, Commissioner Jenkins wanted the team to craft the ordinance as a more positive force to encourage tree preservation rather than as a punishment tool.

“The mindset that I have is to incentivize rather than be punitive,” he said. “This isn’t being written to be just punitive.”

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