TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Tampa’s mayor is sending a strong message to anyone cutting down trees illegally in the city.

Her message comes after a Tampa Bay area tree cutting firm was given the largest fine in the city’s history.

Miller & Sons Tree Service was fined $234,427.50 for violating state law. Mayor Jane Castor says in 2019, Miller & Sons cut down protected trees along Gandy Boulevard and on Schiller Street without a permit.

City arborists determined the trees were healthy, however, owner Jonathan Lee deemed the trees dangerous.

In 2019, the state changed the law saying local governments had no say over dangerous trees on residential properties.

The city argued both properties were not residential. A circuit court judge ruled at least one location was zoned for commercial use, the Gandy property.

The city filed an ethics complaint and last month, the International Society of Arboriculture issued a public reprimand against Lee.

“They found that his behavior was unethical and illegal in this instance,” Castor said. “They were found in violation.”

Lee was unavailable for an interview Monday, but sent 8 On Your Side this statement:

Miller and sons will file an appeal through the District Court of Appeals regarding the circuit courts decision to uphold the magistrates imposed fine. We value the trees in our community and work with many residents and companies to do a variety of tree work including tree preservation plans, construction related tree protection etc. The case stems from the removal of 27 hazardous trees located at a mobile home park in 2019 after a new state law had passed. The debate with the city is rather the property which was zoned commercial should have qualified for the state law seeing as how residents resided there at the time of the evaluation and tree work. Miller and sons did not clear cut the property and there were healthy grand trees that we would not sign off. Multiple other Arborist determined the trees to be in poor condition at this location and we can assure that trees must meet a certain criteria to be considered for removal. Ultimately it is the property owners decision to remove the trees. The property owner settled with the city for $30,000 and ended up selling the property for over 2.5 million which left us to battle the city since they would not discuss a settlement with us. It is my opinion that this is more about the optics and the politics given the poor condition that the trees were in. The city even stated in a prior article that they weren’t questioning the condition of the trees but rather that the property met criteria as it was zoned commercial. 

It was clear from the beginning that the city of Tampa felt the new law was a violation of home rule and they stated that they would fight to amend it, which they successfully have. Miller and sons should not be a pawn in this fight between the city and state and we attempted to discuss the matter with the city multiple times prior to this becoming a legal issue. We value our communities trees and the health of our clients trees but we are not the ultimate decision makers for what a property owner decides to do. We can only diagnose deficiencies with trees and give them a hazardous rating and lay out options. 

Furthermore for the city and the court to argue that the Gandy property did not meet the criteria for the state law, it seems inequitable that a mobile home property wouldn’t qualify. If they had the right to reside there for multiple decades, the right to vote in the district they were resident of, how can they not be considered residents. The city also attempted to label the mobile homes as condemned at the time the trees were being removed and placed stickers on each mobile home on 8/14/2019 mandating the residents leave the premises by 11am that day, giving them less than 2 hours to leave their homes. I believe this was an attempt to stop the tree work at the time but would have rendered people homeless. Lastly the mobile homes were registered by Hillsborough County as mobile homes in 2019 and many years prior to 2019 and was also registered by the Florida department of health as a mobile home park yet the magistrate called it a trailer facility of some sort and stated that they were not registered with the department of health to which the circuit court upheld. If this was in part their justification to rule against Miller and sons, a quick search would show this to be factually incorrect and that it was in fact certified. When we entered that certificate into the record, the ruling was never corrected. 

We will always have a balanced approach to tree care and tree preservation while respecting the decisions of our clients and will make every effort to understand and follow laws as they may change which has become often. We respect the cities right to protect trees but find it to be at times arbitrary, inconsistent and perhaps motivated by political and monetary factors.