Pensacola, Florida
Saturday August 24th 2019

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Lorax Fever

By Jeremy Morrison

Local regulations aimed at protecting trees can be a contentious issue—environmentalists forever rallying for greater protections and the development community always bristling at the notion of increased logistical or financial hurdles mucking up a project or its bottom line.

Escambia County first tread on these grounds nearly 20 years ago.

“We had a grassroots group come up and say we need to manage this natural resource, kind of like a wetland,” reflected Tim Day, Escambia’s environmental programs manager.

Keith Wilkins, currently serving as the city of Pensacola’s assistant administrator, worked for Escambia for years and remembers that first county conversation well, particularly the night a proponent of tree protections died while urging county commissioners to act.

“He was an attorney and an environmental activist,” Wilkins recalled. “He was a proponent of the tree ordinance.”

Wilkins said that R.N. Dunagan, III, had come downtown with his wife to see their daughter perform in a Christmas production at the Saenger Theatre. With a public debate regarding the tree ordinance taking place across Palafox in the county complex, the environmentalist decided to drop in and speak his mind.

Dunagan took to the public podium that night and began his words of support for protecting the area’s trees. They were the last words he ever spoke.

“His last words were, “Please, pass the tree ordinance.’ And then he took his glasses off and fell down dead,” said Wilkins, who was sitting next to the lectern at the time.

Later, when Escambia eventually passed its ordinance defining tree protections, the county floated the idea of naming the law after Dunagan. The man’s widow called Wilkins to ask what he thought about that notion.

“I had to tell her no because they really watered it down and weakened it,” Wilkins said. “It’s kinda the anti-Dunagan tree ordinance. They just watered it down a lot with the 60-inches diameter.”

Escambia County will soon reassess its tree ordinance, considering, among other things, lowering the diameter-threshold for a heritage tree—considered the highest strata of protected trees—and bringing it closer to the 34 inches enshrined in the city of Pensacola’s tree ordinance. Pensacola, meanwhile, is also beginning discussions about revising its ordinance, taking its heritage tree diameter threshold as low as 14 inches.

How Low Can It Go?
The city of Pensacola will dive into discussions about revising its tree ordinance this month when Laurie Murphy, executive director of Emerald Coastkeeper, presents a potential draft of the revised law to Pensacola City Council.

“The city has to look at it and say, ‘Do we want to have higher expectations?’” Murphy said. “We either want to have a beautiful future, or we want to continue doing things the way we’ve been doing it.”

In her presentation, Murphy will talk about the loss of the city’s tree canopy, the heat-island effect and issues like erosion and sedimentation. She’s going to be throwing a fairly ambitious draft on the table for consideration, and she’s expecting pushback.

“It’s very hard to get universal buy-in on anything,” Murphy said. “City council and city government become very concerned about how developers feel. That’s how they make their money; that’s economic development. I get it.”

Murphy, who began working on the tree ordinance last year with former City Councilman Larry B. Johnson, has already gotten some pushback on portions of the revision. When Mayor Grover Robinson came into office, he expressed some reservations.

“I told him that I would go back to the drawing board and I would reconstruct it a little bit,” Murphy recalled.

Initially, the draft revision aimed a little higher. For example, Murphy had wanted the heritage tree threshold to be 12 inches, but she’s backed off to a slightly larger diameter of 14 inches.

Such aims will likely need to be dialed back even further to garner support from the mayor.

“I’m all about trees,” Robinson said recently. “I’m all about the right tree, right location.”

While he disagrees with some parts of the current draft—such as the prescribed diameter size for heritage trees—he likes other portions, namely a requirement that removed protected trees be replaced with native species of an appropriate size and health to ensure the trees prosper and provide the intended canopy and other benefits.

“What we’ve got to do is encourage a good urban forest of what we want to see happen, and that includes keeping trees that are of a real significant age but also encouraging people to plant better-caliber trees that will be there for our future,” Robinson said.

Currently, Pensacola’s ordinance prescribes that removed trees be replaced with trees three to four inches in diameter. The draft calls for replacement trees to be at least 6 inches in diameter.

“They’re stronger, healthier and have a stronger chance of survival,” Murphy said.

In addition to addressing diameter size for heritage trees and replants, the city’s draft ordinance also addresses various other items, among them fees associated with tree removal. One tweak that Murphy feels will get some attention—“it’s going to be very mixed”—is the inclusion of the longleaf pine on the city’s list of protected trees.

“Most of the longleaf pines have been cut down,” she reasons.

Once the city’s draft revision has been presented to the city council, it will likely make its way before the planning board and environmental review board, where it will be praised, critiqued, deconstructed and reconstructed before eventually making its way back to the city council. Murphy is expecting a spirited debate all along the way.

“I don’t think it’s going to run real smoothly,” she said, “but you have to fight for anything worth doing.”

Due for the Dunagan Ordinance?
Last year, Warrington resident Margaret Hostetter started pushing Escambia County to revise its tree ordinance. She balked at everything from its 60-inch threshold for heritage trees to the nominal $25 fee developers could pay to clear cut a residential lot.

“This ordinance was written 20 years ago,” Hostetter said recently. “It is so bad. It is so weak.”

The county’s planning board agreed in March to take a look at revising the tree ordinance and set about conducting an online survey to get a feel of how the public would like to see the ordinance changed. That survey wrapped up earlier this month, and the issue is likely to make its way to the planning board in September.

Hostetter, who has organized the group Trees for Escambia County Florida, is pushing for various changes in the county tree ordinance. She and likeminded tree-proponents in her camp have contributed voluminously to the county’s revision survey, suggesting concepts like dividing the county into different zones—such as rural and urban—that would have varying regulations regarding tree protection.

Hostetter would also like to see the county reduce its diameter threshold for heritage trees, down from 60 to 34.

“That’s what I’m recommending,” Hostetter said.

With the current 60-inch threshold, Day said, the county doesn’t have too many trees being labeled at heritage.

“There are very few other trees that reach that size,” he said, explaining that such trees tend to be water and laurel oaks in the 60- to 80-year range or live oaks between 200 and 300 years old.

Areas of the county that do boast such 60-inch heritage trees are also the areas of the county ripe for development—Beulah, Pine Forest, Myrtle Grove.

“Certainly, there’s enormous pressure in Beulah as development pushes out there,” Day said.

But it remains to be seen how much appetite there is at the county level to toughen up its tree ordinance. There will be plenty of pushback from developers—during a March planning board meeting a representative of the development community said changes impacting residential developments would be “a line in the sand.”

“When you build a subdivision, you’re going to have to cut down some trees,” agreed Escambia County Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, who represents areas of the county experiencing an uptick in new development.

Bergosh said he was “willing to have a conversation” about revising the county’s tree ordinance but also cautioned against expectations that Escambia would adopt anything akin to Pensacola’s current ordinance.

“This would be much more onerous on the county because we have a lot,” Bergosh said, pointing out the differences in landscapes. “Once it’s a concrete jungle, it’s a lot easier to say, ‘No more cutting down the redwoods.’”