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.
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.
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.
Tom was the previous editor of the Winter Park Voice and a citizen of Winter Park. He was a tireless advocate for Winter Park.