St. Johns County growth sprouts controversy about tree removal

If you visit or live in St. Johns County, it's tough to miss just how much construction is going on. But is it too much, too quickly, and what about all the trees that are cleared for development?

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. - Even the most casual of observers would notice the multitude of construction and development happening in St. Johns County. But is it too much and happening too quickly? What about all the trees that get cleared for development?

"The average person, they're going to say development is widespread, it's overwhelming," Doug Davis acknowledged Friday at his office in St. Augustine. His development company, Fletcher Davis, builds residential properties from New Smyrna Beach all the way north to Savannah. He calls St. Johns County's rules regarding tree removal "the most stringent" of all counties he touches.

"To the extent development occurs within those areas, I think it's very responsible," Davis said, pointing out that the permitting process is very methodical. "It's planned for."

Master Arborist Danny Lippi is also based in St. Augustine. A private contractor who consults on some of the County's building permit applications, he is one of fewer than two-dozen Master Arborists in the state of Florida. He agrees that applications don't get approval overnight, but the list of species that are protected - including live oaks, southern magnolias, red cedars and bald cypress - isn't long enough.

"Pine trees, palm trees, the Florida State tree - the Sabal palm, worthless," he told First Coast News.

"Off with their heads?," I begged for clarification.

"Off with their heads," Lippi affirmed.

I met Lippi at the side of US-1, at the edge of a parcel cleared of trees and waiting for construction. He went on to explain a complex set of guidelines beyond species, that includes formulas governing diversity, canopy, height, and size on a given parcel of land. One example is a 'tree inches' allowance.

In simple terms it works like this: Each acre must have at least 80 inches of trees, measured as the sum of the trees' diameters four-and-a-half feet above the ground. Removing trees to less than the minimum mandates either replenishment or paying in to a tree fund the County has set aside.

Lippi agrees it's a comprehensive set of guidelines, but that in some respects it barks up the wrong ... er, well, you know.

"They were put in place with the right things in mind but I don't think anyone understood the reality of trying to calculate a historic tree," Lippi said, noting that any change to ordinance can be a long process.

Yet another divergence of opinion is about how evenly the rules are enforced.

"I can assure you that it's not the Wild West," Davis emphasized. "A lot of thought has gone into it and it's highly restrictive," he continued, adding that an inspector's approval is required at every development before occupancy is allowed.

Lippi's narrative differs sharply.

"I don't hear anything until the last day, when everything is all done and they've asked me to come and look at the trees," he said. "And the trees are half-dead. Where is code enforcement on that?"

Lippi gestured to the bare parcel, for which he said he'd been asked to render consultation a year ago.

"I know that there was a 30-inch magnolia right there," he said with a hint of disgust. "And, I know that there was a 90-foot bald cypress right there, and they're gone. Where are they?"

Davis maintains that existing enforcement practices make such rule avoidance all but impossible.

"Being able to just come in there and develop something cutting corners," Davis began. "You would almost have to do it not through loopholes, but you'd have to do it illegally."

Whichever assessment is more accurate, Lippi says it's not just about aesthetics, but long-term viability and - in the hurricane belt like Houston - day-to-day safety.

"When you replace that with impermeable concrete that allows sheet flow, you increase water flow, you reduce drainage, and you increase flooding, period."

We reached out to St. Johns County for a statement on tree protection. Michael Ryan, the director of communications replied:

St. Johns County proactively preserves protected trees through the Land Development Code, which dictates protection for specimen trees, historic trees, buffers, habitats, and wetlands. The County also requires a tree survey that depicts the location, species, and size of all protected trees prior to new construction, and if a protected tree is removed without proper permitting, the violator is required to replace the tree inches lost through replanting on an inch-for-inch basis.”

For more information about land clearing and landscaping in St. Johns County, click here.

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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