Responding to outcry from activists concerned about increased construction activity, the city has been working for more than a year to improve its tree protection regulations.
Arlington Park resident Nathan Wilson is one of those activists working to preserve trees in his neighborhood and throughout the city. With new homebuilding on the rise, he says, tree protection can easily become a low priority for developers or contractors.
Still, he’s not satisfied with city staff’s effort to create new code provisions pertaining to tree protection, although he thinks the regulations already in place serve as a pretty good foundation. The problem, he says, is making sure those rules are being followed.
He can rattle off a list of properties in his neighborhood where trees were removed without a permit or the proper protections weren’t in place before demolition and construction. The problem is even worse east of Tamiami Trail, he said, but it’s on the rise as new builders move to less expensive neighborhoods.
“You’re not going to stop progress,” Wilson said. “We want to develop a balance between the natural beauty of Sarasota and concrete.”
“We want to develop a balance between the natural beauty of Sarasota and concrete.” — Nathan Wilson
After spending months expressing his concerns to the city, he believes things are progressing in the right direction. On Feb. 18, city staff met with residents to discuss these issues and assured residents their concerns were being taken into consideration.
Tim Litchet, the city’s director of neighborhood and development services, said things are improving as the emphasis on tree protection becomes more widespread — both for contractors and code inspectors.
“My style has always been to try to educate and get voluntary compliance as much as possible,” Litchet said. “If we have anybody who doesn’t want to do that, we’ll deal with that as we move on.”
The results bear out Litchet’s assessment. Over the past two weeks, Wilson said, staff has responded to all of the tree protection issues to which activists have alerted them. Not only that, but the contractor or property owner has rectified all of those issues.
Wilson, who serves as the vice president of the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association, has been focused on improper tree removal and related issues for two years. He quickly discovered the issue wasn’t just contained to his neighborhood. Residents of Hudson Bayou, Tahiti Park and other neighborhoods had similar concerns, and those groups teamed up to convince the city that some change was needed.
As staff works on writing new regulations, he’s calling for a greater focus on enforcement issues. Even as the city acknowledged the tree protection issues and budgeted for an additional code enforcement officer, Wilson said violations were going unpunished.
City arborist Mark Miller has been on the job for just six months, but residents say his proactive approach has helped turn things around. Miller said people violating the tree protection regulations aren’t always developers — often, homeowners or contractors are improperly removing trees because they don’t realize they need a permit.
For him, education is also a priority. The city has set up a new website where residents can look up permits and read the regulations for themselves. So far, Miller is happy with the progress that’s been made.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Miller said. “But the strides we’ve taken are very drastic and I think will have a huge impact in protecting our trees.”
Wilson is now focusing on securing more trees for Arlington Park. He wants to create canopy streets by planting trees in the right of way — that way, he says, there are no concerns about new development leading to removal. The neighborhood has applied for free trees from the Arbor Day Foundation, and hopes to relocate naturally growing “volunteer trees” from residential properties.
As mitigation for a developer removing trees from a property in the neighborhood, the city planted two new trees in the Arlington Park dog park. For the past five months, Wilson has made sure those trees are getting the water and attention they need; he jokes that they’ve almost become like his little kids.
That speaks to the challenge of continued tree advocacy for the city, he said. It requires a dedication to a cause and a commitment to keeping the conversation around trees alive. Right now, Wilson believes some necessary steps are being taken — a cause for optimism after years of concern.
“We just hope the city of Sarasota is really thinking about the future and what we want to become,” Wilson said.
Want to grow your knowledge of Sarasota's tree regulations? Searching for a permit for a property in your neighborhood? Visit the city's tree website to get more information on the current rules, as well as new regulations city staff is proposing.