City Tree Preservation Board Jumps the Gun

Saves Developer $12,375

City Tree Preservation Board Jumps the Gun

Several weeks ago, in the thick of election season, Winter Park’s Tree Preservation Board delivered its own October Surprise.

The board had proposed significant changes to the city’s Tree Preservation Ordinance earlier this year, and had been waiting for months – through hearings, workshops and citizen testimony — for the changes to be finally approved.

But then, in early October something happened that tested the board’s willingness to wait for final Commission approval of the ordinance changes:  A local developer filed an appeal, hoping to overturn a $12,375 tree removal fee required by the city’s current ordinance — an appeal that mirrored the Tree Board’s own desire to significantly reduce tree fees and replanting standards.

Tree Board Overturns Current Preservation Standards in Appeal Case

The developer’s appeal was heard by the Tree Board on October 18. On that day, in less than thirty minutes, the Tree Board overturned provisions of the city’s current tree ordinance and instead, voted to substitute their own proposed ordinance changes — just 3½ weeks before the City Commission would have an opportunity to vote on the changes. While discussing  their motion to waive the fee and the standards mandated by the city’s current ordinance, the board cited provisions of its own proposed ordinance changes in reaching their decision.[Video]

City Claim re Historic Trees that “We’re Not Allowing Removal” Proves False

Nine days before the Tree Board appeal hearing, the city sponsored a Tree Ordinance Workshop where citizens debated the board’s proposed changes in anticipation of upcoming Commission hearings on the matter. At least two members of the Tree Board attended the October 9 workshop. These members and many city residents witnessed George Wiggins, head of the WP Building Department, offer a strongly worded assurance to citizens who might question the intent of the proposed changes:

“There’s an extremely important point here that I cannot over-emphasize. When you’re looking at a historic tree . . . we [city staff] have never issued a permit to remove a historic tree . . . So when you see these drastic differences [between the proposed ordinance and the current ordinance] I’m not sure that it matters much, because we’re not allowing the removal. “

However, documents obtained by the Voice reveal that two weeks before the workshop, Mr. Wiggins’ Code Enforcement department approved a permit application to do just that – remove a healthy live oak – a 39” diameter heritage tree; The same tree that would later be at issue in the October 18 Tree Board appeal. 

WPV contacted Mr. Wiggins, asking him to clarify the timing of the permit approval. He commented that his workshop statement “. . . was based on info I received from our arborist that must have pre-dated that permit. In addition it would be impossible to build the new home with the location of the tree in the middle of the lot.”

Historic Live Oak Blocks Developer Plan to Build New Home 3x Size of Current Home

Public records obtained by the Voice show that once the tree removal permit was approved, the permit applicant, Rex-Tibbs Construction Company, filed an appeal on October 4 asking the city to waive payment of a $12,375.00 fee into the Tree Fund.  The fee Rex-Tibbs was hoping to avoid is owed by property owners when they receive a permit to remove a large, healthy tree. (Fees are not owed when a sick or declining tree is removed.) The staff report prepared for the appeal hearing defines the city’s requirement in this case:

“As a Historic Tree, the compensation requirement becomes 3” of replacement to 1” removed or replanting of one 4.5” minimum caliper shade tree and compensation of $110.00 per inch not replanted. Assuming the minimum was replanted, this leaves a balance of 112.5” and a balance due of $12,375.00.”

Other documents obtained by the Voice include a Purchase Contract for the residential property on which the oak stands – a lot in an established neighborhood on Rockwood Way in south Winter Park. In an apparent bid to develop an investment property, Rex-Tibbs Construction is contracted as the sole buyer of the Rockwood property. The property contract is scheduled to close in mid-November.

Rex-Tibbs submitted building plans to the city indicating that they intend to replace the existing 1600 sq. ft. home on the lot with a new two-story 4,500 sq. ft. home. The new building footprint covers the spot now occupied by the historic oak. Winter Park Voice contacted Donney Rex and requested comment and/or clarification of the information obtained in our Public Records Request. As of press time, Mr. Rex did not respond to our request for comment.

During the appeal hearing in front of the Tree Preservation Board, the city’s arborist, Alan Lee, conceded that the size of the historic tree’s canopy creates significant difficulty for construction of a new home on the lot. However, Mr. Lee also pointed out that the historic oak is physically and structurally “in good shape,” adding that he expected the historic oak to live “another hundred years or more.” [Video of Full Hearing]

Did City Miss Opportunity to Replace Ailing Trees on Winter Park Road?

During the hearing, board members learned that the property on Rockwood is very close to Winter Park Road — a few hundred yards from the spot where the city pruned deep v-cuts into multiple oak trees along the roadway. City officials have stated that the trees were pruned this way due to the declining health of the trees.

Current city code would have allowed Rex-Tibbs to plant or possibly even “donate” multiple trees as a way to significantly reduce the fee they owed the city. A review of the Rockwood Way documents does not show evidence of any alternative building plans or off-site tree replacement strategies requested by the city or offered by the builder.

At the Tree Preservation Board hearing, Donney Rex of Rex-Tibbs construction presented his case to the board members, noting that he has planted many trees during his years as a home builder. Mr. Rex was not opposed to planting a few replacement trees on the property, but did ask the board to waive the $12,375.00 fee. Options including modifying the building plan and/or applying for setback variances to enable the home to be moved away from the tree were not discussed at the hearing. Board members and the city arborist agreed with the builder that the historic tree would have to be removed to enable the proposed new home to be built, as currently designed, inside the current setback envelope.

Board Members Explain Decision/Rejection of Current City Code

Soon after Mr. Rex finished his presentation, board member Richard Simpson made a motion to waive the entire fee. Mr. Simpson’s rationale for approval appeared to be largely based on the more lenient Tree Preservation Ordinance provisions his board has recommended to the City Commission. Simpson explained

“I know that the City Commission has not adopted our proposals to revise the tree code, but . . . if we adopted the proposed code — notwithstanding that it hasn’t been approved yet by the City Commission — and approved this with a two tree replacement requirement, we’d be consistent, at least, with the amendments to the code that we [proposed earlier this year].“

Simpson’s motion was quickly seconded by board member Christine Menkin. Just before the board voted, board chair Woody Woodall assured the board members that he had attended the October 9 Tree Ordinance workshop and observed that “There was really only one person that dramatically opposed our [proposed changes].”

Immediately following Mr. Woodall’s comment, city staff recorded a board vote of “All in Favor” to waive the $12,375.00 fee and require Rex-Tibbs to replace the 39” diameter live oak with two 4.5” trees.

Related Tree Workshop Videos:

Winter Park Voice requested comments from all Tree Preservation Board members who were present at the hearing, including Anthony Gray, Phil Eschbach, Woody Woodall, Christine Menkin and John Simpson. As of press time, we did not receive any comment on the proceedings, except from John Simpson, who commented via email to the Voice,

“I have no comment regarding the actions taken at the October 18 meeting. The video and minutes speak for themselves. As I am not the chairman of the TPB, it is not my place to speak for the Board.

Regarding the Board’s proposed changes to the ordinance, I suggest that you seek comment from Pete Weldon as he was the member primarily responsible for the proposed changes. As you know, these changes were discussed and revised at several Board meetings and were then adopted by the Board and sent to the City Commission for consideration. I voted in favor of these proposed changes, but recognize that others may have different views and priorities. My intent was to encourage the retention and planting of trees within the City while reducing the financial hardship imposed on property owners seeking to improve or enhance their homes.”

Commission Yields to Citizen Concerns: Schedules Tree Preservation Workshops: Schedules Tree Preservation Workshop

Commission Yields to Citizen Concerns: Schedules Tree Preservation Workshops: Schedules Tree Preservation Workshop

At their September 10 meeting, City Commissioners agreed to put off a vote on Tree Preservation Ordinance changes until a citizen workshop could be convened.

The panel acknowledged receiving critical letters from citizens concerned about the proposed changes. The discussion opened old fault lines on the Commission — with the Mayor hinting that citizens had been stirred up by misleading information.

Halfway through the discussion, some members of the panel became visibly agitated as they described citizen resistance to proposed policies. Despite the occasionally contentious exchange, the Mayor and Commissioners did ultimately reach consensus that a public forum would benefit the community. City Manager Randy Knight was asked to schedule a workshop on proposed Tree Preservation Ordinance changes.


UPDATE: Public Meeting on proposed Tree Ordinance changes will be held Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 6 pm at City Hall.

>> Watch video of the discussion by clicking on the image above.

On Monday, September 17, Phil Eschbach, a member of the city’s Tree Preservation Board, joined a group of Winter Park residents in a meeting with Randy Knight. The group discussed setting up a workshop, scheduled for October 9, that will give city residents an opportunity to learn more about the city’s proposed changes to the Tree Preservation Ordinance.

In a statement to the Voice, Mr. Eschbach said he hopes “for a good turnout on Oct 9th because we want to make sure the public understands what this is all about and what the ramifications are. Also the important thing to get across is that after the hearings, the ordinance will be brought up for a vote later in October.” Mr. Eschbach tells the Voice that the October 9 meeting is scheduled for 6:00 pm, pending final confirmation from City Manager, Randy Knight.

Marc Hagle, past member of the Tree Preservation Board that wrote the current ordinance, has indicated to members of the citizen group that he will attend the workshop.

This article was updated on 9/19/12.


Hagle: Fate of 100 Year Old Trees Worth Debating

Hagle: Fate of 100 Year Old Trees Worth Debating

In an open letter to city officials and citizens of Winter Park, Marc Hagle sheds light on the original Tree Preservation Ordinance he helped write as chairman of the tree ordinance committee.

Mr. Hagle explains the costs and benefits that underlie the current ordinance and urges a more robust, citizen-involved debate before the ordinance is changed.

Hagle traces the history of Winter Park’s tree canopy — an effort sustained by generations of Winter Parkers to fulfill a vision of the city’s founders. That vision transformed a landscape dotted with native pines into the urban oak forest we live in today. The historic 19th century photo shown above (obtained from the Winter Park Historical Association website) shows the Winter Park/Orlando “Dinky Line” passing by the pine trees that dominated the landscape in the late 1800s.

This is the full text of Marc Hagle’s open letter to the city:

“Thank you to all who have volunteered their time for the benefit of Winter Park. It is through a combined effort and dialogue that a true and representative direction for the City is determined.

The tree preservation ordinance is one of those issues which requires an open and representative discussion. There are clearly two schools of thought, the property rights of our citizens and the historic rights of the City.

I am a real estate developer. As such, I am firmly in the camp of individual property rights. An owner should and must have the right to own, protect and develop his individual property as he wishes, of course within safety and other realistic guidelines. But what are these guidelines and what is their purpose?

Historically, City codes are based on the health, safety and welfare of it citizens and the public in general. How does this apply to the tree line within the City? To answer this question, one must understand the history behind the tree line in Winter Park.

Continued from Home Page… In the late 1800’s there were no oak trees in Winter Park. The trees consisted primarily of pines. The City leaders at that time started importing and planting the oak trees as we see them today. This process continued thru the early 1900’s. The City we enjoy today is a product of over 100 years of effort from our forefathers.

Property rights versus the rights of the community, this is today’s debate. The tree line in Winter Park is not a today phenomenon. It is a legacy passed down to us. It is part of the very soul of the City. It is not an asset which can be replaced in the short term, as it takes decades to develop a mature tree.

Does the history of the tree line and the time to replace it give rise to City intervention? Well of course it does and has by the history and agreed importance of the tree line and the very existence of the previous, existing and proposed tree codes. So now the only remaining question is the degree of intervention.

It costs approximately $110 per caliper inch to plant an oak tree. Once planted, a new oak tree must be heavily watered for its first year after planting. To hire a crew on a bulk basis to water newly planted trees costs over $5-700 per tree.

The Winter Park Live Oak Fund has planted over 750 trees in Winter Park in the last 5 years. The fund initially planted both 6 inch and 4 1/2 inch trees. In our first year we learned it was most economical to just plant the 4 1/2 inch tree. We also learned an oak tree of less than 4 1/2 inches had no short term impact on the tree line. By dropping to a 3 inch tree, we were not only compromising in diameter of the tree but most importantly the height and spread. Thus the Live Oak Fund, through trial and error, determined a 4 1/2 inch tree was the best for the City and still cost effective.

When I chaired the committee which wrote the existing tree ordinance, there was considerable debate as to personal versus public rights and a fair and equitable cost, if you will, as to the value of a tree to the City and the right to buy that value from the citizens of Winter Park. It by no means was a short debate. The existing fees were determined based on the size and historic nature of the tree to be removed and a comparison of those costs to ordinances written in the communities surrounding Winter Park. Further, one of the overriding considerations was the long term protection of the tree asset for the City. We did want to allow the property owner the flexibility required, but did not want to allow this flexibility without recognizing the actual replacement cost of such an asset.

The three categories of trees, protected, specimen and historic are representative of similar ordinances in other cities and recognizes the long time it takes for the growth of an oak tree. The replacement ratios of 1:1, 1.5:1 and 2:1 took the visual impact and replacement time into account.

So, should a property owner have the right to remove a 75 year old tree and replace it with 3 five year old trees? From a cost stand point the tree removed costs approximately $20-25,000 and the replacement would cost $990, not a fair trade. From an historic and visual perspective, trimming a deep V for power lines has less impact. We know how the public feels about the power line issue.

Again, I thank the tree preservation committee for their hard work and dedication to the City welfare. I do believe the debate should continue and the investment our ancestors have made in Winter Park protected.”



Trees and Power: Undergrounding Coming Soon

Trees and Power: Undergrounding Coming Soon

Will your neighborhood power lines be safely buried underground before next year’s hurricane season? After months of study, city engineers have the answer.

On August 13, Electric Department Director Jerry Warren released the results of a months-long study of Winter Park’s tree canopy. The electric department’s goal was to rank segments of the city’s power grid — street by street — to determine the order in which the city’s power lines will be placed underground. As explained in the study, “Staff identified 499 line segments (previously estimated to be 466) that have been assembled into 75 identified logical undergrounding projects. In accordance with the priority ranking methodology, adopted by the City Commission on June 11, those 75 projects have been ranked in order of priority.”

The ambitious $70 million undergrounding project — approved unanimously by the City Commission — could span fifteen to twenty years. Electric utility revenues will pay for the undergrounding, which is expected to cost the city close to $4 million annually.

Click the button below to see a prioritized master list of all 75 projects and a detailed explanation of the city’s ranking methodology. Readers can use computer keyboard search functions (ctrl F or cmd F) to find particular streets on the list.


Undergrounding Priority List

Continued from Home Page… During the June 11 Commission meeting, when Director Warren introduced his ranking methodology, he purposely refrained from naming any particular neighborhood or street to keep commissioners focused more on the ranking formula and less on the political implications of which neighborhoods will be undergrounded first. This week, Warren named names — and, his release of the full list also highlights which streets are scheduled to have power lines buried in the first years of the project.

These are the streets proposed for undergrounding in 2013:

Rank #1

  • E Lake Sue Ave, from Winter Park Rd. to Laurel Rd
  • Forrest Rd, from E Lake Sue Ave to Fawsett Rd
  • Laurel Rd, from Virginia Dr to Glenridge Way

Rank #2

  • 1951 Forrest Rd
  • 2161 Forrest Rd
  • E Kings Way, from Forrest Rd to Winter Park Rd
  • E Reading Way from Glencoe Rd to Winter Park Rd
  • Glenridge Way from Forrest Rd to Winter Park Rd
  • W Fawsett Rd from Fawsett Rd to E Fawsett Rd
  • Winter Park Rd from Reading Way to Lake Sue Ave
  • South of Lake Sue Ave, W Kings Way, Fawsett Rd, Englewood Rd, Glencoe Rd

Rank #3

  • Greene Dr from Cady Way to Sherbrooke Rd
  • Perth Ln from Cady Way to Loch Lomond Dr

Rank #4

  • Summerfield Rd from Greene Rd to Ranger Bl
  • Whitehall Dr from Lakemont Ave to Greene Rd

Rank #5

  • Interlachen Ave from Swoope Ave to Lyman Ave
  • Lyman Ave from Interlachen Ave to Knowles Ave
  • Lyman Ave from PS 22 to Fairbanks Ave
  • Moody Way

Director Warren is careful to point out that the priority of undergrounding projects can be affected by Public Works projects, unexpected conditions encountered in the field — and by priority changes dictated by the City Commission. So far, commissioners have not tinkered with the methodology, but questions have been raised about high-ranked streets that have already had trees significantly pruned, thereby reducing the likelihood of future power interruptions.

The city’s undergrounding priority ranking is based on several factors. The ranking methodology establishes a point system that uses data gathered by electric system personnel including arborists, linemen and system troubleshooters. Key ranking factors include:

Tree/power line conflicts — 40 points maximum (a line segment with more trees per mile is higher-ranked)

Visibility of overhead wires — 20 points maximum (high-traffic roads have priority over low-traffic neighborhood streets)

Type of power line — 20 points maximum (High-power lines — like 3-phase feeders — serving many people are ranked higher than low-power lines serving fewer people)

Reliability — 20 points maximum (a line segment with a history of power interruptions is higher-ranked)

City streets with a higher cumulative score are ranked higher and undergrounded sooner.



Will Police & Fire Pensions Survive the Recession?

Will Police & Fire Pensions Survive the Recession?

Pension stories these days often depict a fiscal landscape in which city and state budgets all across America are in flames — a landscape where public employees are feeling the heat of taxpayer anger over benefits they can no longer afford.

In news reports and official studies, pundits and politicians call out public employees — and the officials who oversee them — for pushing cities to the brink of bankruptcy.

In Winter Park’s just-released 2013 Proposed Budget, City Manager Randy Knight warns “Substantial budget cuts have been necessary in our budget for the past few years both to balance the budget in those years and to create sustainability going forward. This year the overall revenue was fairly flat compared to last year so the cuts were not as drastic. Going forward, if revenues do not return to a growth that keeps up with inflation, it may be necessary to consider either service level reductions or a modest millage rate increase”

No hint of bankruptcy, but a warning nonetheless.

Some commentators paint a far darker picture of pension plan challenges. In a Senate Finance Committee report The Pension Debt Crisis that Threatens America, Senator Orrin Hatch concludes “. . . it is becoming increasingly apparent that defined benefit pension plans will never be financially sound enough over the long term for use by state and local governments.”

Fareed Zacharia writes in Why We Need Pension Reform, “Warren Buffett calls the costs of public-sector retirees a “time bomb.” They are the single biggest threat to the U.S.’s fiscal health. If the U.S. is going to face a Greek-style crisis, it will not be at the federal level but rather with state and local governments. The numbers are staggering.”

Just like pension plans in other cities, our city’s firefighter and police pensions took a hit during the great recession. And yet, a Google search of the phrase “Winter Park Pension” shows that — unlike many other cities — Winter Park’s story has remained decidedly low-profile. By contrast, a search of “San Jose Pension” and “California Pension” yields page after page of dramatic news coverage. Why them and not us?

California Pension Chaos

2012 was the year San Jose, CA became a poster child for public pension excess and municipal folly. Both San Jose and nearby Vallejo are the subject of a recent five-alarm expose in Vanity Fair Magazine. In California and Bust, Michael Lewis tells a tale of cities in deep trouble in a state whose future is no longer golden.

The fate of San Jose and cities like it have triggered a chain reaction — feeding the fear that drives the stories that embolden politicians to take on public workers. Stockton’s budget collapse forced it into bankruptcy this summer. San Bernardino voted to file for bankruptcy on July 10. And now, even liberal Democrats are taking a hard look at entitlements. Illinois and its largest city, Chicago, are bleeding more red ink than most — forcing Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel to challenge benefits that are important to traditional Democratic party allies.


Trees & Power: The Good. The Bad. The Necessary?

Trees & Power: The Good. The Bad. The Necessary?

City officials will not soon forget the third week in April when half of Winter Park woke up in a bad mood. It was the week officials learned that photos of their deep v-cut trimming of the city’s much-loved oak canopy had gone viral.

Images of radically trimmed oaks on Winter Park Road and elsewhere were circulating from neighbor to neighbor — then were attached to angry emails that flooded city in-boxes. City Commissioners quickly responded to residents with emails and newsletters of their own, but within days the controversy was full-blown.

City officials and staff were getting cranky, too. Charges were hurled. Feelings were hurt. There were reports of distraught arborists and tense meetings. Jerry Warren, head of the city’s electric utility — whose employees had trimmed the trees to clear around power lines — was particularly stung by citizen criticism. Weeks later in the June 11 city commission meeting, Warren appeared to have developed a wry verbal tic — referring to himself repeatedly as “Jerry the Tree Butcher” during a long presentation.

First Attempt to Calm Residents Unsuccessful

At the April 23rd commission meeting convened just as the tree controversy bloomed, the city presented a slide show justification of their trimming policy. But the power company-produced presentation spawned more questions than it answered. Commissioners and residents wanted to know: Just what — exactly — is the city’s tree trimming policy? What was the policy in years past? Why did it change? When did it change? Who authorized it? What are the alternatives? Any hope the city had that their presentation would end the discussion was quickly dashed.

Several city residents who had invested significant time and effort in tree canopy preservation spoke to the commission. First up was Steve Goldman. Goldman had sent email to many city residents the day before the commission meeting. The email included photos of aggressively trimmed trees and a plea to “Roll the city’s guidelines for trimming around power lines back to the 3½ foot clearance which has been the effective guideline in practical use from 1983 . . .” Marc Hagle, a resident who, along with Goldman has contributed to a tree canopy fund sponsored by the city, spoke of an alternative approach. Hagle proposed floating a small bond issue as a way to quickly fund the undergrounding (burying) of power lines near “problem trees”. This approach spares trees that would otherwise be aggressively trimmed to keep them out of overhead power lines.

City Tree Team Debates the Details

While city staff continued to take citizen input on the city’s tree maintenance policy, a large “Tree Team” of staffers was already banging out a new plan behind the scenes. Warren characterized the group as having “…lots of different viewpoints . . . and I will tell you that the debate was sometimes fiery.” Eventually, Warren’s team managed to put together an extensive analysis and proposal that was presented at the June 11 city commission meeting.