Tree Regulation Is Shaky Matter

By NATASHA DEL TORO The Tampa Tribune

Published: Apr 18, 2007

TAMPA - If you're building in Tampa, a building inspector is more likely to decide your trees' future than an arborist.

The parks and permitting departments are enmeshed in more than 100 disputes over trees, many dating back three years. The departments - which decide pruning and removal issues - are short-staffed and at loggerheads over preservation.

Officials in both departments, plus a city council member, concede that flaws in the system frustrate residents.

"When you get different departments, it's awkward, things fall through the cracks," said City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, who helped revise Tampa's tree ordinance in the 1980s. "I believe that the city can do a much better job of connecting the dots."

Without a permit, pruning and cutting certain trees is illegal. The parks department oversees "grand trees," a title based on size and species, such as large oaks, pines, elms and maples. The Construction Services Center, responsible for permitting and inspections, handles all other protected trees, which include all of the above, but smaller.

Some homeowners complain about overly strict rules that won't allow them to cut a low-lying branch over their roof, even if it keeps them from obtaining homeowners insurance. Last year, Eric Haura, a south Tampa physician, almost lost his homeowners insurance because of a grand tree limb hanging over his roof, which the city denied him permission to prune. He eventually reached an agreement with both the parks department and the insurance company by cabling the limbs, but that was after months of negotiations.

Steve Graham, a parks manager, said his department approves about half of tree removal applications for hazardous grand trees. They allow pruning as long as it does not eliminate a main limb, which could destabilize the tree and pose safety concerns.

"Problems arise when lay people, including insurance companies, speculate on how trees should be pruned," Graham said. "Our decisions are always science-based."

Other homeowners complain the code is not enforced enough, with contractors damaging trees.

Tom Ward is in the second category. The Tampa resident has been waiting more than a year and a half for the city to punish the builder next door, who Ward said "butchered" a grand oak in his yard to make way for a new house. Now he fears that the destabilized tree could topple onto his home.

"I am angry this tree could die, and I'm angry this tree could fall on my house, and I'm really angry the city does not seem to care," Ward said.

Ward's case volleyed back and forth between the permitting and parks departments as they tried to figure out who should handle the oak. First it was measured as a grand tree and then it was remeasured as a protected tree.

John Barrios, manager of Construction Services, blamed the dispute on tree classification not being an exact science. Borderline trees cause the most hassles.

But Jim Weaver, Ward's arborist, said regardless of the tree's category, inspectors should not have approved the site plan for the new house in the first place, because its short setback endangered the tree's roots and violated the tree ordinance. The ordinance also requires use of protective barriers around trees during construction.

Revisions And Reorganization

Tampa wrote its first tree law in the 1970s to protect trees and taxpayers in the face of rapid growth. Various administrations and construction booms prompted revisions.

A few years ago, Construction Services reorganized to make the department more efficient during a phase of fast-paced growth. Barrios streamlined the permitting process by cross-training plumbing and building inspectors to look at trees. Plumbing inspectors didn't pan out, but building inspectors kept the extra responsibility. They now have a corps of 19 people on the job, none of whom are certified arborists.

"Not everyone that looks at trees has to be an arborist," Barrios said. "Some trees are very straightforward."

Becoming a certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture requires passing an exam and gaining at least three years of professional experience.

Barrios said building inspectors receive two-hour training sessions weekly over a five- to six-week period. Any resident who has doubts on their rulings can ask a tree expert from the city or an independent one for a second opinion. Issues ultimately end up with the code enforcement board.

Tampa arborist Tom Conte said using trained building inspectors and using an arborist is not the same. "What it comes down to is we have people who just don't know anything about trees," Conte said.

He said the untrained eye leads to irregular standards and permitting.

Conte said the rules are so inconsistent that builders would rather avoid permitting hoops and take a fine than lose the customer. Homeowners also take their chances. Pruning accounts for nearly 60 percent of the unresolved grand tree cases.

Violations can cost up to $15,000, but the city rarely levies fines of more than a few thousand dollars. If a builder fails to comply with the rules, the city can halt construction.

Disputes Increasing

Graham, the parks manager, said protection and enforcement aren't followed to the letter - depending on who does the inspection - laying the groundwork for disputes.

"Just having a few people out there that aren't quite clear on what their responsibilities are can be quite damaging to trees. We've seen that," Graham said.

The permitting department doesn't track which inspectors are challenged or statistics on complaints. The parks department recently started keeping track of complaints.

Graham said disputes are growing, and although he's raised the issue, "the people who can affect change either don't understand the depth of the problem or have more important things to deal with."

He would like to see the parks department handle all trees, as it did in the 1980s. Two parks department arborists do inspections. Other parks department arborists are in administrative positions.

Saul-Sena said she has suggested tweaking the ordinances at city council meetings. "But honestly, it's an administrative process issue," she said.

Barrios said his department is trying to improve service by offering more training classes to building inspectors, making permitting available online and setting up a tree hot line, which people can call if they see someone violating the tree code. He said they have responded to 30 calls, 12 of which were after-hour incidents since January.

He also said a separate board should be established to deal solely with tree cases. The code enforcement board hears tree cases once a month.

Sean Donnelly, who sits on the city's code enforcement board, said residents need more awareness about the tree code. Including the tree hot line number on utility bills could help prevention, he said.

Some arborists think the best thing to do is assign tree experts to the job, regardless of the department. "You have people that do inspections for electrical, mechanical, plumbing. &hellip You also need a slot for trees," Weaver said.

Reporter Natasha Del Toro can be reached at (813) 259-7827.

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