By GREG GILES
Your large tree has a damaged limb. It will look unsightly if trimmed. Can you cut down the tree?
Maybe. Maybe not. There are rules to follow.
Sarasota County requires a permit, and the City of Venice currently falls under county tree rules.
But the City of Venice is in the process of adopting its own tree protection rules. It will also require a permit to take down large trees. The new rules are anticipated to go into effect at the beginning of October, although staff may request a delay until January.
A new state law, however, recently went into affect that exempts residential property owners from municipal and county rules that require a permit to remove large trees. But there’s a caveat.
That exemption applies only if a property owner first obtains documentation from an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture or a Florida licensed landscape architect that deems the tree to be a danger to people or property.
Arborists and landscape architects charge between $70-$150 per hour, although a portion of that is sometimes waived if the company does some work on the tree. The upside for property owners is they have more control of the process.
But that’s already being challenged by the City of Pensacola in what is being called the first test case over the new state law. In Pensacola, a land owner wanted to remove a large tree at the back of a vacant lot in order to build a new house. It’s a Heritage tree, typically protected by the city’s tree protection rules.
The city hired an arborist who declared there’s enough room to build the house and keep the tree. It then sued the owners to protect the tree.
Among matters to be clarified in the new law are the meaning of “dangerous” and “residential” property owners.
City tree regulations
The City of Venice recently hired its own arborist, Jim Yelverton. He’s been watching the progress of that lawsuit, which questions the new law’s constitutionality.
“Our focus in on really big trees on owner occupied properties,” Yelverton said of the draft city ordinance.
“Generally, trees proposed for regulation in Venice fall into three categories: Protected, Heritage and Venetian trees,” he said.
A city permit will be required to remove a tree in any of the three categories, unless the exemption applies.
Protected trees are native species of tree with a trunk diameter of 4 inches or grater as measured 4.5 feet above the ground.
Heritage trees, the equivalent of the county’s Grand tree, are large native species of tree that have a a trunk diameter of 30 inches or greater, or 45 inches cumulative diameter for a multi-trunk tree.
A third category, called Venetian trees, are nominated by the property owner as having a historic or cultural significance to the community, Yelverton said.
“The application is directed to the city arborist with documentation that the trees has a historic or cultural significance to the community. Written consent to the nomination by all property owners underneath the canopy of the tree must also be provided. The city arborist will evaluate the condition and risk potential of the nominated tree and prepare a report for City Council to consider,” Yelverton said.
At first staff considered a tax break for designating Venetian trees, but that’s currently being reconsidered.
Council has final say. Once designated a Venetian tree, it’s afforded special protections by the city and a permit is required for its removal and certain pruning practices, Yelverton said.
There are special rules for pruning, too.
“For Heritage and Venetian trees, a permit will be required to remove a branch 10 inches in diameter or larger (measured 12 inches from the point of the branch attachment),” Yelverton said
“Topping, flush cut branch removal, lions tailing and other harmful pruning practices not consistent with accepted pruning standards will also be made illegal for all trees in the city,” Yelverton said.
Under the draft rules, the city arborist can impose fines for any pruning determined to be harmful that could compromise the long-term safety of a tree. A permit fee schedule and fine schedule have yet to be considered.
There are also new rules being proposed for developers to encourage the saving of tree clusters on large tracts of land.
Yelverton said a new (second) draft tree protection ordinance should be available in a couple of weeks, incorporating some concerns raised by Council Members before they took their summer break.