Home / Government / Homeowner’s appeal of tree ordinance fee denied

Homeowner’s appeal of tree ordinance fee denied

Homeowner Michael Oberacker pleads his case to the Safety Harbor City Commission Monday night.
Homeowner Michael Oberacker pleads his case to the Safety Harbor City Commission Monday night.

When Safety Harbor passed its revised tree ordinance back in March, officials cautioned that the legislation would most likely need to be tweaked in the future to account for any unforeseen complications that might arise from the new regulations.

Evidently, the future came on Monday night.

After being granted a permit in August to remove two live oaks that were damaging his driveway, homeowner Michael Oberacker was surprised to learn later that he either had to replant two new trees or pay a hefty fine in the amount of $1,600.

Oberacker appealed to the Commission Monday to waive the requirements due to the fact there were no spots to replant new trees on his land, which already contains 35 trees, and he was never notified of the stipulations of the removal by his tree company. He asked to be able to donate to the city’s tree bank or plant trees in a neighbor’s yard instead.

Michael Oberacker.
Michael Oberacker.

“We love the trees on our property, but unfortunately the time came where we had to take some down,” Oberacker, a longtime licensed home inspector, said.

“I don’t ask for an exception, but this was not handled properly originally.”

But the Commission denied Oberacker’s appeal despite being obviously conflicted about the situation.

“This is somewhat troubling,” Mayor Andy Steingold said during a lengthy discussion of the agenda item.

“Mr. Oberacker has a forested yard, but we have a tree ordinance in place, there was notification, and (city arborist) Mr. (Art) Finn said there was room for replants. So I’m torn.”

Safety Harbor arborist Art Finn depicted where new trees could be planted in Mr. Oberacker's yard.
Safety Harbor arborist Art Finn depicted where new trees could be planted in Mr. Oberacker’s yard.

Oberacker disputed the arborist’s claims that there were places on his property where new trees could be planted, which Finn had earlier demonstrated by showing photos of Oberacker’s land with drawings of trees Photoshopped in.

“As far as Mr. Finn, I’ve lived there for 19 years, I know where the skeletons are on the property,” Oberacker said, noting the locations Finn suggested were not viable for a variety of reasons.

“All I’m looking for is some common sense in this.”

The four City Commissioners (Commissioner Cliff Merz was absent) suggested ways to mitigate Oberacker’s penalties, suggesting he replant one tree and pay part of the fine, which is allowed per the ordinance.

But despite the Commission’s obvious reluctance to penalize Oberacker, the officials said their hands were tied based on the guidelines of the new ordinance.

“There’s no arguing Mr. Oberacker has a beautiful yard,” City Manager Matt Spoor said, noting that 124 permits have been pulled since the ordinance was enacted with only one complaint.

“But the ordinance calls for replacement trees or a fee to be paid.”

“I believe the fees are too high…but there is a tree ordinance in place,” Commissioner Janet Hooper said.

“I’m open to a compromise…but we don’t have too many options.”

Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold.
Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold.

After voting 4-0 to not waive the requirements, Oberacker expressed his disappointment with the decision.

“What we were looking for was some common sense, but I guess when creating an ordinance, common sense isn’t part of it,” he told Safety Harbor Connect outside City Hall.

“It’s disappointing, but it seems like they didn’t have a way out.”

For his part, Mayor Steingold said the City would definitely look into changing the ordinance to account for special situations like this.

“When it comes back up for review, we can tweak it,” Steingold said, noting a regularly scheduled review of the ordinance is coming up soon.

“We may look at it because it’s not in the ordinance now when you have ‘X’ amount of trees and ‘X’ amount of square feet on your property. Maybe we have a sliding scale or halve the fee or reduce the number of replants. We’ll have to see.”



  1. We lost our appeal of a tree permit denial yesterday in Clearwater. While the majority of the board were very sympathetic to our situation, their hands were tied by the city code. Our situations are different, yet very similar. How is it that one buys two sycamores 20 some odd years ago, plants them, nourishes them, loves them, then becomes enslaved to their leaves, limbs and debris, realizes their enormity (50 feet and growing and located 8 feet from the front porch), applies for a permit to remove them, and is denied because they are protected. We said we would replace/pay whatever they want. We, too, were told the code should be tweaked to account for situations like this. At least our board members came to our home to view the trees. Said our landscape was gorgeous. We have planted 35 trees to what was already a wooded space. They understood our situation, but could do nothing about it. Wait! These are my trees that I bought and paid for and someone is denying my right to take them out so we can maintain our property the way we would like. This makes no legal sense to me – certainly there’s no common sense. Smacks of deprivation of property rights. I’m not sure where to go from here, but we fully intend to keep going.

    • Let me know please . . they just denied me too. Six Oak Trees on as tiny front yard. It is ridiculous. I would love to see their front yards. How many trees do they have.

  2. Mr. Mayor,
    All due respect, the stunt pulled last night if not illegal was truly unethical. At the beginning of the meeting and in the agenda it stated that citizen comments would be heard. Just before your 5 minute break you even stated that citizens would be heard next. Then after you and the commissioners conferred in the back room you came back and would not allow citizens to be heard. You well knew several of us were there to weigh in on this topic. This was a shameful use of power on your part and backed up by the commissioners.

    Michael Oberacker

  3. Well tonight (November 16th) one of the agenda items at the Commission meeting tonight is the tree ordinance. They have the agenda listed on the city site which has a number of different idea about correcting the lack of common sense as it exists up to today. The problem for me is that none of this would be retroactive for my tree issue of last month. The Commission did not think to table my issue until after this already planned review. I’m the one in the article that appealed but did not know there was nothing to appeal. As of today I have purchased my two replacement trees, just have not figured where to plant them yet. My existing forest of trees makes that difficult.
    Well in this ordeal I’ve gotten the trunk (better than saying shaft), but I plan to attend this evenings meeting to speak up so that some common sense can be added to the current ordinance. I hope others will attend.

  4. Safety Harbor became a totalitarian city after the last election. Either enough voters were swayed by the phony argument of “protecting the tree canopy” or failed to sufficiently vet the candidates. While I admit the field was not very deep, we certainly got the short end of the stick.
    Only politicians can pass an a ridiculous ordinance this onerous, then say their “hands are tied” when it comes to mitigating the damage it causes. Better a citizen pay a burdensome fine then admit then admit they royally screwed up and correct it!
    To rub salt in Mr. Oberacker’s wound, we are all paying our “arborist” a substantial salary to tell him what he can do in HIS Yard.
    The next election should be easy-if they’re in-vote them out!

  5. Safety Harbor Residents: Please remember these commissioners and mayor when their reelections come up. We need common-sense commissioners and a common-sense mayor running our city. Carlos Diaz is the only one in the group with common-sense. Vote next time and get your neighbors to vote for the right individuals to run our city. Thank you.

  6. One question…. When did we move into a Dictatorship? This is the most insane thing I have heard so far. So if I remove a 12 inch trunked tree I must replant a combination equal or greater to the number of inches in tree removed. UMMM do I not own my land? If the Commission is going to dictatorship us into what our properties need to look like should they not also be given the equal to or greater option….. Option one – you pay my mortgage/taxes or Option 2 allow me to live on my land as the US Constitution allows. – What’s your decision City Commission – #1 or #2? In addition to my question – the new land being developed for yet more Luxury Condos under the guise of being affordable vacation rentals, (Corner of Bayshore and 10th) takes down 100 trees do they not also have to replant under the equal or greater than rule? And what about when you re-zoned the Ferminich Land (Corner of 590 and McMullen) for BayCare to build “Offices/retail space” there are a lot of trees to come down, will they also be required to obey your hair brained tree ordinance?

    The City of Safety Harbor is not a deed restricted city – so I ask when did we begin to hand over all our decision making capabilities to these power hungry BUFFOONS?

  7. Well I sure wish I had known the history of the tree debate, the way it was I was like a lamb lead to slaughter. Several of the politicians in their big comfy chairs had their knives ready to cut me up. I feel it was a real waste of my time to speak that evening, minds were already made up. The only option most looked for was a way to charge me more.
    If there was a reasonable location to plant two trees I guess I would. The One location Mr. Finn mentioned in my center planter already has a stump there. The other would be about a foot from my neighbor’s yard, I’m sure he’ll love that. So in my case there were two trees damaging my driveway and putting any vehicle in my driveway in peril, no place to reasonably plant, already have a ton of big trees, an arborist that since sees the need to notify owner’s with a door hanger, politicians that know the ordinance will need to be tweaked, but there is no way to allow me to be relieved of this burden.
    I have been told by staff today that there is no additional appeal, and I need to get this done quickly (either plant or pay up) or they will put a lien on my property and that my only option is to get an attorney and sue. There is a meeting November 17 about adjustments to the ordinance (people may wish to show up), but even if good changes are made they would not be retroactive to me! Thanks City Hall!
    Well I can buy two junk trees for a couple hundred dollars that qualify and stuff them somewhere and hope they live for a year, however I’d rather put that $200 to good use in the city. Even better yet, I’d be glad to donate the $200 to the Safety Harbor Kiwanis current project of saving lives that was presented that night in lieu of planting and the outrageous fine. Wow, human lives over trees, what a concept!
    Any direction on this issue would be greatly appreciated.
    Hey don’t forget to go the Wine Fest this weekend, you might get the chance to shake the hand of one of these fine politicians—don’t forget to count your fingers afterward.
    As a 19 year homeowner in Safety Harbor, I am greatly disappointed in our governing body. Just no common sense.

    • Mr Oberacker,
      I would get Brookhaven town, Atlanta, GA info on the “Canopy ” for tree removal policy.
      ATL is known for its trees and their beautiful canopy. If utilized properly, it will be hard to refute the LONG TIME TESTED results.
      Good luck.

    • Good Evening Mr. Oberacker
      There may be good news for you according to County bylaws there are special circumstances such as what you are going through County can override the city especially since the tree issue used to be handled by the County before the no common sense group of individuals started the battle to control the good people of this city that’s when the major divide took over, plenty of good people are sick of their nonsense but at the moment since they are in charge of the city not much can be done to remove them however it is worth checking into the possibility of county to override their ridiculous actions, also another plus is county election is in full swing which may work to your advantage, another action you can take is to get a reputable arborist with no special interest to the city who can explain why it is not possible to plant anymore trees on your property then you can present the evidence to the news channels to bring this injustice out in the open which has a much larger audience, don’t give up the fight especially what is rightfully yours, good luck to you!

  8. Wow so our elected city leaders are getting beat up at there very own Commission Meetings. All negative marks – not resident friendly, not business friendly and stunting growth without a clear plan of what the city will look like in the near and distant future. In honor of this Election Day I ask – when are there terms up so we can vote them out?!? #CommonSense

  9. For those that don’t know me, I’m the resident that mailed most residents a letter before the election, warning them of voting in these commissioners. I sat through most meetings on the tree ordinance and was at the meeting last night. Commissioner Zodrow was, and continues to be, the most extreme advocate in favor of this ridiculous law. He was borderline giddy last night in this resident’s situation and was adamant with an attitude of “too bad” last night. Zodrow tried to justify that the fine really wasn’t that much money. Frankly, he wanted even MORE stringent rules than what was ultimately passed. This is what Zodrow represents: over regulation, telling others how to live, no common sense. PLEASE fellow residents, remember this when he is up for reelection. Steingold is a close second; he was the other big advocate of this bad ordinance. I’ve been a harsh critic of these two, because it is deserved criticism, and this is a perfect example of why. The Commission should be absolutely ashamed of their treatment to these residents who have lived in town for 18 years and are “good citizens” with nicely maintained property … that already has 34 trees on it!

  10. I don’t know if it’s more disappointing to learn that our city leaders think that it’s ok to fine a resident $1600 for removing a tree that is damaging his driveway or the fact that now they are going as far as telling the residents where they need to replant them on their own property. So sad to see leaders who believe in government power over personal rights.

    • I agree with you. . . Am having the same issue. My permit was denied. I have 6 oak trees on a small front yard. My whole property is 1/4 acre. Six Oak Trees is ridiculous. They won’t even let me plant anything else.

      • It’s nearly been a year since they strangled Safety Harbor residents with this tree ordinance – since then they’ve had it as an additional agenda item a half dozen times at their meetings and continue to add restrictions to the homeowners to the point that even trimming your trees is now an offense that must be governed under these lunatics sitting as Mayor and Commissioners. Must be nice to sit up there and do nothing for our city whatsoever other than talk about trees and actually get a paycheck for doing it!

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