Monday, January 07, 2008


Its not just that to build some student housing in Gaineseville, Florida an out of town developer basically clear cut a grove of beautiful old trees that angers nearby residents. And it not just that the trees that were left have little chance of survival. People are also angry because even though something like this happened before the officials allowed it to happen again...even though their are ordinances on the books that should prevent such destruction.

It seems that the citizens of Gainesville care mightily about their trees. So much so that the City Commission became the first community in America to establish a Tree Appeals Board. Because the removal of street trees had often motivated irate neighbors to storm City Hall, the Commission created a panel of experts proficient in arboriculture to arbitrate such matters.

Writes one Gainesville Blogger at the site Government Gone Wild, "In North Central Florida we cherish our trees, they are beautiful, they are big, many of them are old. They are an awesome sight. They are also becoming an endangered species."

And still, somehow the clear cutting occurred.

In fact, again despite residents concerns, a recent study done through Keep Hall Beautiful and the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s Beautification Committee found that Hall County where Gainseville is located lost about 15 percent of its forest cover in the last 20 years, with the most significant loss of trees happening in recent years.

But clearing trees is "good" for development and especially for developers. So although homeowners face hefty penalties if they violate tree removal ordinances, wealthy developers don't.

Gainesville like so many other cities is becoming overdeveloped.

Writes that blogger mentioned above:

"There is hardly a space in the city limits that hasn't been touched, where greenspace hasn't been removed in favor of parking lots, commercial buildings and residential homesites. The city was at one time known as an All American City and Tree City USA. If you compared photos of the city just twenty years ago to today you would be shocked and saddened. How did this happen?"

It's all in who you know, how much money you have, and how far you can go before the average Joe wakes up and decides to do something about it."

Planning and Development's Special Projects Manager Jessica Tullar says Gainesville is losing its older trees to continuing development; she invited City Council recently to consider a new ordinance amendment already on the books in other cities.

"Development sites have to retain any tree that's considered historic in nature or is considered significant in the sense of its overall size and health," she said.

But its obvious that local officials have to have the backbone to enforce such ordinances including already existing ones. And local judges have to quit finding ways to allow big developers to bypass the law, and begin enforcing the law instead.

The following report is from the Gainesville, Florida Sun.

Trees cleared for condos irks some

The clearing of trees for the new Cottage Grove development on SW 13th Street has some area residents calling for stronger ordinances to protect against anything like it happening again.

Meanwhile, county officials said they are concerned about the future health of the remaining trees and acknowledge that improved planning and review of projects may be needed on future projects.

"People are really angry about it," said Kate Lee, who lives in the nearby Idylwild neighborhood. "Obviously, the next step is that we need to get some rules changed because this obviously isn't any good. We somehow have to get things changed so this can't happen."

Alachua County Principal Planner Steve Lachnicht said the Cottage Grove plans that were approved allowed the cutting.

Of concern now, Lachnicht said, is whether the trees that were left standing will withstand having roads, buildings and parking lots on top of their roots.

"There is a concern that some of the trees that are being saved on the site are not being protected to the extent that they should be to best maintain them," Lachnicht said. "They are being protected according to the plan, but the plan didn't leave enough room necessarily for the roots and those types of things."

Cottage Grove, located on SW 13th Street, south of Williston Road, will have about 80 residential units on almost 22 acres. It will be a student-oriented development.

Much of the property was a pine plantation and has been cleared. A tree and vegetation buffer was left along SW 17th Terrace, a designated county scenic road that requires a buffer. The other trees that were saved are generally live oaks.

The county's comprehensive plan states that trees should be protected in a hierarchy by species. Protection varies according to size, age, condition, historic association and uniqueness. For instance, a large live oak is likely to be protected while a young pine is not.

Champion trees - the largest of the species - cannot be removed.

The land-clearing at Cottage Grove has upset some residents of the nearby Idylwild/Serenola neighborhood, who said that too few trees were protected.

Resident Willa Drummond said at a recent commission meeting that residents were taken by surprise by changes from the original plan that were approved by the county.

"This is an approved development by Alachua County that is a total clear-cut of a piece of property that is between two scenic roads," Drummond said. "Every single piece of tree-covered habitat on that property has changed."

Drummond added, "There are no groves left, incidentally."

Cottage Grove has been in development for several years, and last year changed ownership. County officials said the revised plans were probably not scrutinized as well as they should have been to determine how factors such as the construction of roads and the proximity of buildings and parking lots to the trees could affect the health of the trees.

Officials also said the county previously had only one forest/landscape inspector to review plans and evaluate sites. Steve Kabat has since joined the staff and is working on the Cottage Grove project.

Kabat said the density of development on the site in terms of buildings, parking lots, roads and stormwater drainage could result in damage to the root structure of the remaining trees. He added more than 300 new trees will be planted at Cottage Grove.

"The trees that are being preserved are crammed in among the buildings. The roots of these trees can go out horizontally three times or greater the canopy of the tree, so it's not an ideal situation," Kabat said. "For the tree, having a building or a parking lot impacting most of its root system is not the best. When you are going to be cutting a road and putting it three feet below grade, most of these roots are within the top two or three feet of the surface."

Cottage Grove is being developed by Capstone Companies of Birmingham, Ala. It has built student-oriented complexes near major colleges nationwide including the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, Florida State University and Louisiana State University.

Senior Vice President Ben Walker said Alachua County's development regulations are among the toughest faced by the company.

"We develop all over the country and this was a very stringent site plan approval process which took a year or year and a half to get done. We did work with the county and we certainly didn't try to sneak anything by," Walker said. "The site is 21 acres and we are only putting 84 units on there. We worked with the arborists on what trees to save. We want to save as many as we can, but we still have to develop a project."

The Cottage Grove development is just the latest building project to cause a public stir because of trees that were cut down. A few years ago, the construction of a new Publix plaza on the northern edge of Haile Plantation created an outcry in part because of the tree removal.

Kabat and Lachnicht said stronger restrictions in the county's land-development code could lead to greater protection for the tree canopy.

Some of the wording of the code is "waffle language" rather than definitive black-and-white terms that are easier to defend, Kabat added.

"The public kind of drives this. If the public doesn't like how development is occurring, people can initiate changes," Kabat said.

Lachnicht said having Kabat will also help through better review of plans.

"We brought on a second arborist and that will give us the manpower to look at some of these things," Lachnicht said. "Today we have a higher awareness because of that. It was unreasonable to expect one arborist to cover the county in terms of every tree removal, permit and plan review."

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