By Maya Albold
If a tree is cut down on private property and no permit is necessary to remove it, can government officials make a sound?
The answer, as of July 1, 2019, is likely no. A new law, House Bill 1159, regarding the removal of trees across Florida recently went into effect in Saint Johns County, and provides for the “pruning, trimming, or removal of a tree on residential property if the property owner obtains documentation from an arborist certified by the International Society of Agriculture or a Florida licensed landscape architect that the tree presents a danger to persons or property.1” The law was approved by Governor Ron DeSantis on June 26, 2019 and establishes that local governing bodies can no longer require “a notice, application, approval, permit, fee, or mitigation” for these services.
Essentially, this law allows for landowners to chop down undesirable trees on their property, with no requirement to replant a tree in its place, if they present a document from a certified tree specialist claiming the tree was a “danger.” The law was met with steady criticism from arborists and environmentalists alike. Many expressed concerns that the law would open the door for the unnecessary removal of healthy trees due to the owner’s personal preference and a lack of systemic oversight. This view largely stems from the belief that there is no comprehensive way for local governments to oversee the assessment strategy of licensed specialists hired by owners for each tree that is subject to removal. The public’s upset was similarly derived from the lack of a provision requiring that removed trees be replaced with a sapling of the same species, or any tree at all. Despite these concerns, the response to the new law was not entirely negative. Those who support the regulation claim that the previous process to acquire a tree removal permit was far too lengthy and inefficient. The past process required that an owner or contractor visit the Planning and Building Department to receive a permit for tree removal. This could lead to further delay if the proposed tree required approval from the Planning and Zoning Board before its removal.
The law applies to the entirety of Saint Johns County except for Saint Augustine and Saint Augustine Beach. Currently, these two locations maintain their existing regulations requiring a permit and governmental approval. The Saint Augustine Assistant City Attorney, John Cary, commented on the law’s inclusion of code enforcement officers that will investigate complaints by claiming that “if the property owner has documentation that the tree has been deemed a danger to people or property, then no action would be taken.2” This calls into question truly how much power the local governments will have in controlling the removal of trees from private properties in the face of a variety of methods to circumvent the guidelines of the law. Opportunities for tree services or property owners to profit off the loosened regulations may lead to the needless cutting of trees, a vital aspect of our county’s natural ecosystem and landscape.
The news of this law applying to Saint Johns County comes months after the announcement of the original bill’s consideration by the Governor and its application to The Villages in Sumter County, Florida 3. Citizens of the area were dismayed at the thought of such a shift in regulation, partially due to the neighboring town of Lady Lake’s status as a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. Saint Augustine and Saint Augustine Beach are similarly labeled as Tree Cities, meaning they show a commitment to the maintenance, planting, and protected removal of their city’s trees. As of 2017, 45.77% of Florida’s citizens reside in a Tree City USA, Jacksonville being the largest, and Orlando the oldest, in the state 4.
Given Florida’s enduring commitment to preserving its unique tree canopy in both urban and rural areas, the decision to pass this new legislation is a shocking change in policy. Counties across Florida have yet to see the lasting effects of this new law and the environmental consequences that may result. Still, there are plenty of actions citizens can take to strengthen the tree presence and growth in their communities. By simply planting a tree, you can aid in advancing the health and development of our landscape for years to come. Another important task is regularly trimming and maintaining trees on your property. This limits the number of trees that may become subject to rot, disease, or property damage that can act as a cause for removal of a tree and those surrounding it. Limiting your waste production (litter, contaminated water runoff, emissions, etc.) possesses lasting benefits in keeping our environment clean and our trees free of threatening toxins. You can also choose to take initiative and organize a community planting day to plant trees in your area, group clean-ups to remove litter from the ground that inhibits healthy growth, or a collection drive accepting donations for tree-focused organizations. Effective change stems from the commitment of passionate citizens.
1 State Affairs Committee. “CB/HB 1159: Private Property Rights.” The Florida Senate. 27 June 2019. https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2019/1159. Accessed 18 July 2019.
2 Gardner, Sheldon. “New Tree Law Raises Concerns in St. Johns County.” The Saint Augustine Record. 13 July 2019. https://www.staugustine.com/news/20190713/new-tree-law-raises-concerns-in-st-johns-county. Accessed 18 July 2019.
3 Minton, Meta. “Bill on Governor’s Desk Would Remove Local Control Over Tree Removal.” The Villages News. 17 May 2019.