Should Manatee County Ban Large Trees on Small Lots?

By Merab-Michal Favorite
Bradenton, FL (September 1, 2010)- Right tree in the right place was the motto of the county commission meeting on Tuesday. Residents voiced both opposition and support for a tree ordinance that would ban large trees from small residential lots in new developments.

The motive was presented in depth by Bill Bors of the natural resource department. It seems that these giant shade-providers are at war with infrastructure and public safety – at the expense of the taxpayer. The man verses nature debate that deliberated was actually based on what is best for both worlds. Constant trimming and chopping roots of these foliage Goliaths (live oak being the main example) not only ascetically makes them disfigured, but topped trees can become dangerous liabilities because new growth can consist of weakly attached limbs to decaying stubs, according to the Manatee County Natural Resource Department. This is not good for homeowners, especially in hurricane season!
Bors recommended implementing a tree dripline protection clause – which would not allow construction under the area where a line extends from the tree canopy edge to the ground. He stated that the majority of tree death is due to impacted root systems rather than damage to above-ground portions of the tree. A few inches of fill soil can kill a mature oak, which is why he proposes using chain length fence instead of the orange barrier that is commonly used.
While he is protecting some area trees, he is also discouraging large ones on small residential lots less than 60 feet wide. Instead, he wants to promote smaller tree species like holly. Historically, landscape architects have been specifying live oak to fulfill a canopy tree requirement. But there is an issue — the county has received and continues to review tree removal proposals to remove the majority of street tree oaks in subdivisions with small lot sizes. There are conflicts with walks and driveways lifting, as well as with water, sewer and irrigation lines impacted at an elevated level and it is costing millions on an already tight budget.
“In no way can a lot less than 50 feet sustain a live oak in the front yard. It has been a maintenance nightmare since day one,” said Matt Schmitt, the onsite maintenance supervisor for Waterlefe Golf and River Club. “When you have a lot 50 feet wide with a home 30 feet from the street with utilities, telephone, gas lines and sewer lines – in no way can that live oak not interfere.”
Still others perceive this as a violation of landowner rights. They feel that the owner should be able to plant whatever they want in their yard. “I don’t want government to tell me if I can have a tree in my yard,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore.
For some taxpayers,experience has produced a different view. The tree removal has cost them thousands and they live in deed restricted communities, some with codes so strict they can’t replace the trees with anything but another live oak. “Our developer chose to put two live oaks on the 75-foot lots. We’ve had a number of problems in the community. People have a right to put them on their own property, but they shouldn’t be forced on them by developers who don’t care what is going to happen in 10 years and leave the problem to the homeowner. They shouldn’t be allowed to be exploited,” said resident Vincent Celeste.
Developers argue that large shade trees increase the values of the properties. Increased property values mean more tax revenue for the county. The staff presented three developer proposals to plant live oaks on small lots ranging in size to 59 feet. Developers offered the following mitigation measures: the first was to bury potable water service and irrigation service deeper. They could include flexible water lines without joints where roots can intrude. Allowing for more space footage from the public sidewalk, would take care of crack issues. They proposed the possible installation of main irrigation line at rear of lots. They also suggested the use of trees with “symmetrical fibrous root balls resulting in more uniform root development of installed trees,” according to county staff.
Other ideas included a gravel base under walks and driveways to a 6 inch depth to inhibit tree root development immediately under the slab. Encouragement of a higher percentage of palms per lot over the currently allowed 25 percent for small lots (eg. a cluster of three palms) was also an option. The BCC could consider narrower subdivision roads to allow more space for trees. They could eliminate the street tree requirement on small lots as well. Developers could set aside open space between a defined number of homes to encourage canopy through tree groupings or promote street trees in road medians in lieu of street trees on small lots.
Farmers voiced concerns of lost profit due to an unusable inventory of oak trees, but the BCC assured them that this measure won’t happen overnight. “For years we promoted oak trees. I understand we need a change – but we don’t need to do it overnight. Let’s develop a timetable to wean businesses off these oaks and be fair to the business community to use up their inventory and bring this back at a later date,” said Commissioner Ron Getman. The tree issue received a lot of opinion, but it seems the county is open to work on solutions that will please the majority of residents. In other words, tree huggers don’t have to fret just yet.
Related Resources:
The Bradenton Times- Should Manatee County Ban Large Trees on Small Lots?
Species Selection- Part III: Right Tree, Right Place