By Steven J. Smith
Sarasota, FL (September 15, 2007)- Sarasota County commissioners would be delighted if you called them a bunch of tree huggers, and proved it Tuesday as they directed staff to find better ways to improve the “urban canopy.” During a presentation by Amy Meese, general manager of natural resources, about exploring methods to best meld the tree-saving efforts of the public works and environmental services departments, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta broke in.
“This is a critical part of our urban ecosystem,” Barbetta said. “To me, (trees are) green infrastructure and need to be treated that way. As I look around the country, Chicago is now called City of the Gardens. We need to increase the urban tree canopy; to watch what’s going on when trees are cut down randomly when they shouldn’t be.”
Barbetta believed either an independent department should be set up or the county’s urban forestry program must go under the Environmental Services department to better focus on this issue.
County Commissioners Jon Thaxton and Paul Mercier agreed that current tree initiatives were not as successful as they needed to be. Commission Chair Nora Patterson concurred. “I think we’re losing canopy and we’re nowhere near coming close enough to plant to stay even,” Patterson said, cautioning it would take considerable financial investment to fulfill Barbetta’s vision.
“It’s not just about trees,” Barbetta said. “It’s about quality of life. It’s about air quality. It’s about stormwater. It’s about energy savings. You can’t put a value on a tree. And if we don’t come up with that understanding and that policy, we’re just going to continue down the path we’re going.”
County Commissioner Shannon Staub believed it was important to get involved earlier in the building process so trees would gain protection before commercial and residential projects begin. “If we want to change our land-development regulations to be more tree-friendly, then that’s what we need to do,” Staub said.
“We are trying to coordinate the mission that’s defined in the master plan with our regulatory side as we move forward in these code revisions,” Meese said. Patterson told Meese now “may be the perfect time” — due to the current building industry slowdown — to examine and amend building-code regulations to make them more tree-friendly.
Ultimately, Barbetta moved to implement a board policy which would:
* Maximize opportunities to replenish the canopy.
* Maintain the existing canopy.
* Respect trees when making infrastructure decisions.