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Trim trees in Safety Harbor at your own risk

Changes to Safety Harbor's already restrictive tree ordinance could turn any home owner with a pair of pruning shears into a potential violator.
Changes to Safety Harbor’s already restrictive tree ordinance could turn any home owner with a pair of pruning shears into a potential violator.

Safety Harbor residents and officials take pride in the fact that the city is often referred to as “Tree City, USA.”

But thanks to some major modifications to the city’s already restrictive and controversial tree ordinance, trees may soon have more power than the people in town.

Before the issue of nonconforming lots in the downtown district caused quite a stir at the City Commission meeting on Monday night, the commission passed amendments to the ordinance that could make trimming any tree in Safety Harbor an egregious, if not punishable, offense.

Among the proposed amendments, included were the following changes: adding hundreds of trees to the protected list; amending the prohibition of unlawful pruning provisions from protected trees to all trees; and replacing the term “violator” with “property owner” in the ordinance language.

Despite passing unanimously, some of the changes didn’t sit well with members of the commission.

“If this passes the way this is, you’re adding approximately over 700 additional trees to this ordinance,” Commissioner Cliff Merz told Community Development Director Marcie Stenmark. “And I’m not sure if that was really the intent.”

Safety Harbor City Commissioner Cliff Merz.
City Commissioner Cliff Merz.

“I mean, this thing started out with specifics of a couple of types of trees,” he added. “But it’s growing.”

Stenmark said she and city arborist Art Finn would go over the list and take out any trees that aren’t indigenous to the area, but the list of “protected” species in Safety Harbor is set to increase significantly nonetheless.

Merz also questioned changing the term ‘protected’ to ‘all’ trees, which would essentially put anyone who trims any tree into the category of potentially violating the ordinance.

“The removal of the term ‘protected’ to ‘all’ trees, upon my read, this means that all trees have to be pruned according to standards. And this ordinance expands to cover all trees,” Merz said.

“I guess my concern is, all residents can’t be (American National Standards Institute) certified…and all residents should be able to prune their own trees,” he added. “So I’m a little concerned about the removal of the word ‘protected.’”

Steinmark replied by stating regarding of whether a tree is protected or not, if it’s pruned improperly, it can be “a hazard to people and to structures,” and the city’s intent is to educate, not punish, first time offenders.

“It’s to bring attention to that,” she said. “We don’t have a fine for pruning. We have it as a discussion point. It’s more to bring attention to the fact that trees should be trimmed properly.”

Commissioner Carlos Diaz.
City Commissioner Carlos Diaz.

But to some, greatly expanding of scope the ordinance’s regulations was going too far.

“I just don’t want to get into a situation where somebody’s pruning a tree and all of a sudden we have people coming around saying he’s improperly pruning the tree,” Commissioner Carlos Diaz said.

“The pruning now becomes a target for people to harass each other.”

Finn reiterated the purpose is to educate potential violators, not punish them.

“We do have standards for proper pruning,” he said, adding the measures are “for public safety.”

But Diaz said the ordinance’s wording could turn anyone with a pair of clippers into a potential lawbreaker.

“There’s a difference between deliberate pruning and ‘deliberate, obvious unlawful pruning,’” he said.

Despite the objections, the commission voted 5-0 to pass the amendments to the tree ordinance, which also included increasing the penalties for unlawfully removing trees, shortening the timeline for replanting removed trees, and requiring property owners to notify the city whenever a dead tree needs to be removed.

NOTE: City officials contacted Safety Harbor Connect after this article was published to dispute some of the statements in this piece. The corrections submitted by City Manager Matt Spoor include:

  • We did not increase the penalties for unlawfully removing trees, we added a section dealing with contractors willingly removing trees without a permit.
  • We did not shorten the time frame for replanting, we never had a time frame included in the original ordinance so we added one.
  • The CC did not agree with the P&Z recommendation to include the dead tree notification, staff did not recommend this either.

Also, in regards to adding new species to the protected list, Spoor stated only 9 trees will be added. They include Boxelder Maple, Silver Maple, Bluff Oak, Bluejack Oak, Overcup Oak, Swamp Chestnut Oak, Myrtle Oak, Shrumard Oak and Lacebark Elm.

Spoor also wanted to reiterate no fines are levied against homeowners for improper pruning, and educational videos and steps how to do so can be found online.

Safety Harbor Connect regrets any information that may have been misrepresented in this piece.

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  1. sorry, but this is a little fuzzy to me. If i have a dead branch ready to fall in the next rain I can’t cut it down. I just have to wait until it falls on my head and knocks me out.

  2. Wow… Really? How about focusing on important items like listening to the people that voted you in…
    I’m serious considering running at the next election to change things up around here. What about the property owners and businesses that make this city what it is, don’t they have a say anymore?

  3. We keep talking about all these strict guidelines about the trees but every single week I see another person cutting down yet another tree and the neighborhood is starting to look bare and sad. I don’t see any enforcement whatsoever, I see people doing as they please

    • look up on the SW corner of 10th and Main…huge and beautiful Oak taken down…
      for “Key West on Main St.” homes or whatever that silly name is….

  4. HMM – i wonder if they have such a ludicrous ordinance in the towns/cities that “City Staff” live in??? If so i agree with Priscilla that Matt, Marcie and the arborist should offer to trim/prune homeowners trees on weekends!!
    WOW!! what’s next a video of how to properly cut your lawn?? oops most people have weeds here so…

  5. This is absurd. Do so live in a communist city where every little twig is protected by government? Stop this insanity! Give property owners control over their property. 12 years living here and ready to move out if this city doe not regain some sanity in governing.

    • I am seriously thinking of leaving Safety Harbor too after 14 years due to the insanity of the city government. The entire group of them MUST go especially the mayor!

  6. I agree with Priscilla
    The City Commissioners are often called the Gestapo as they have become insane with power
    In fact, every single one of them have broken the law regarding their directives during the 3rd Friday fests
    On a good note, they will be voted out

  7. This ordinance is way out of balance and so ridiculous it is insane and the one’s writing this ridiculous law, then should come to my tree’s and trim them for free and take care them for me!
    Next thing the law will say, is that the city owns our trees! Ludicrous!

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