In discussing an update of the city's tree protection ordinance, North Port City Commissioners worry about infringing on homeowner's rights as it tries to maintain a 35 percent tree canopy cover
NORTH PORT — As part of the rewrite for the city of North Port’s tree protection regulations, the City Commission has decided to base the ordinance on Sarasota County's.
The city is working to maintain 35% tree coverage within the city limits — including private property, parks and other public land.
A survey of tree coverage within the 1997 city limits using i-Tree Canopy, which can be found at canopy.itreetools.org, estimated that in 1995, tree coverage was at 41.2 percent. That year was chosen because an aerial photo from 1997 was not available.
In 2019, the tree coverage in that same area was only 35.6%.
That survey does not include two major annexations — Warm Mineral Springs Park and Taylor Ranch, where the West Villages is being developed.
While North Port’s draft ordinance is modeled after Sarasota County’s, ordinances for three other platted communities — Deltona, Key Biscayne and Port St. Lucie — were also reviewed.
The ordinance is also being considered in relation to a new state law that preempts local government tree ordinances between March 1 and June 1, allowing owners of residential property to trim and remove trees without a permit in preparation for hurricane season.
The tree ordinance will ultimately be Chapter 45 of the city’s latest rewrite of the Unified Land Development Code, which contains all regulations governing development of land in the city.
Commissioners discussed a variety of aspects of the ordinance, such as allowing a cluster of three sabal palmettos, also known as cabbage palms, to equate to one shade tree, which they liked, because those are native trees; whether to require that 75% of trees planted be native species; and whether the 35% tree canopy goal should apply to the city overall or a specific home site.
Currently North Port requires 50% of trees planted to be native species. Bumping that up to 75% and the thought of requiring an individual homeowner to maintain a 35% tree canopy ran afoul of private property rights concerns for both Mayor Chris Hanks and Commissioner Vanessa Carusone.
“They ought to have a right, when they drive into their own driveway, to say ‘I own this,’” Hanks said. “I want to be very careful when we’re stepping on the rights of our residents.”
Hanks equated the city’s concerns about the state of Florida impinging on local government control with the city dictating what a private property owner can do on their own land.
“I own the tree, I own the leaf, I own the branch, I own all of that stuff,” Hanks said, then added that if he chose to plant four trees, he didn’t want three of those tree types to be chosen by government.
“We don’t want to be a communist country that dictates every blade of grass or every detail of a person’s property,” Hanks said.
Ultimately the board settled for keeping the requirement at 50% native trees, though Vice Mayor Debbie McDowell would have been in favor of the higher percentage, and Hanks and Carusone would have been happy with 20%.
And, while a major aspect of the ordinance is to curb clear-cutting too, McDowell said she could abide by an individual’s desire to to so, as long as they paid mitigation fees into a tree fund.
“If you want to clear-cut your property, go for it, but you’re going to pay for the mitigation of trees you’re taking out, and you’re going to pay another $200 to clear-cut your property and not put your trees back,” she said.
The board started to discuss expanding uses for the tree fund but deferred that topic until next week’s budget workshop.