New state law could uproot Tampa’s tree code

Hillsborough County

A newly-passed Florida law could brush away years of work that went into the City of Tampa’s ordinances around cutting down its more than 9 million trees.

The law allows homeowners and developers to cut down a tree, but only if an arborist or landscape architect deems “that the tree presents a danger to persons or property.”

Chelsea Johnson founded “Tree Something, Say Something” to help bridge the gap between tree activists and developers in Tampa.

After years of work, the two sides agreed on a 90-page code of ordinances that went into effect in April, setting out rules for automatic tree removals, mitigation planting, a “tree fund” that developers can pay into, and much more.

But last month, Governor Ron DeSantis signed H.B. 1159 into state law. It prevents local municipalities from dictating when certain types of trees can be cut down–but Johnson says in most circumstances, it only usurps Tampa’s code when it comes to dangerous trees.

“This bill does not change much,” Johnson said. “Tree volunteers and neighbors should be vigilant. It’s not open season on trees. You do still have to go through an arborist or landscape architect to cut down a dangerous tree.”

The law also makes some changes when it comes to trees and utility companies, including rights of way, and establishes a “property owner bill of rights.”

Bob McDonaugh, Tampa’s administrator of economic opportunity, says it remains to be seen whether the new state law will be challenged in court, and what exactly it means for Tampa.

“We have a new city attorney starting in a few weeks,” McDonaugh said. “There will be an interpretation of state statute and tree code, and how they marry together.”

“[This law] is a ‘one size fits all’,” he said. “Unfortunately in Florida we have small cities, and large cities like Tampa with a very sophisticated tree code. We spent a lot of time, it’s based on science. We did a careful study of our tree canopy.”

That study earned Tampa a designation in Business Insider earlier this year as the top city in the world for the percentage of tree canopy coverage.

Johnson said the state law may violate home rule.

Even if it doesn’t, she said the most important thing to remember is that you can’t just do whatever you want with your property.

“You can’t do things with your property that violate your zoning,” said Johnson. “Part of that is to protect your neighbors, part of that is to protect the city. And trees should not get the short end of the stick when it comes to that.”

Tampa did an in-depth study on its tree canopy coverage in 2016 that showed the city’s trees are worth more than $2 billion in economic value.

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