At the group's first meeting Wednesday, residents questioned city staff and other leaders about the ways they could help cut down on growing problems threatening tree preservation.
A group of citizens is interested in taking a more proactive role in protecting trees throughout the city, hopeful that increased activism is the most viable path to preventing tree damage and removal in Sarasota.
Save Our Sarasota, the group whose work led to the city's 2011 approval of a downtown green space policy, has reformed to respond to a variety of issues related to tree preservation about which citizens have expressed concern. The group hosted its first meeting Wednesday at Art Center Sarasota, inviting city staff and neighborhood representatives to speak on the subject of tree protection.
A number of neighborhoods have reported that, as new, larger homes are built, the properties are often cleared of all of the large trees on the site — often without permits on the weekend, when the city does not monitor for such activity. Other neighborhoods have said large construction trucks damage their tree canopies, and some residents have expressed some concern about the disappearance of trees from the public realm downtown.
At that meeting, attendees asked city staff to create an environment in which residents can have a better understanding of where and when trees are being removed. Suggested solutions included posting permits in a visible location for a week before a tree could be cut down and posting tree removal permit applications on the city website.
"We need to find a way to empower the neighborhoods to be able to respond at an appropriate point in the process." — Jono Miller
If those measures were put in place, those in attendance hoped it would help them spread a message regarding the importance of trees with their neighbors — increasing the overall level of awareness throughout the city.
"I think education is going to be our ally on this," conservationist Jono Miller said. "I think people need to know the value mature trees can add to a piece of property."
Residents also called for a stronger tree ordinance. Rob Patten, president of the Hudson Bayou Neighborhood Association, said builders were able to exploit loopholes that permit the removal of trees judged to be diseased. Other attendees said the punishments on the books for improper tree removal don't go far enough, indicating that was another area where the ordinance could be beefed up.
Todd Kucharski, the city's public works general manager, said a good model to follow for a strengthened tree ordinance was the city fertilizer ordinance. When those regulations were being developed, Kucharski said, the city brought together stakeholders on all sides of the issue. When the time comes to draft a new tree ordinance, he recommended getting input from residents, builders and anyone else who had a vested interest in how trees are managed.
Save Our Sarasota organizers Jude Levy and Barbara Campo said the group would begin the process of creating a steering committee to begin addressing the various tree-related issues in the city. As work continues on that front, Levy encouraged all those in attendance to stay vigilant to protect the trees in their neighborhood and throughout Sarasota.
"You are SOS now," Levy said. "It's up to you to start paying attention."