From the oaks of Coconut Grove to the mahoganies of the Upper Eastside, the trees in Miami give each neighborhood a distinctive flair. So, for years, the City of Miami — which is designated a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation — has passed myriad regulations protecting the canopy and preventing residents from chopping down trees without significant approval.
That could soon change: Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature passed a bill to bar local municipalities from regulating tree removals on residential properties.
House Bill 1159, also known as the Private Property Rights Protection Act, went into effect July 1. Under the new legislation, municipal governments are not allowed to require any permits, notice, or approval from residents who wish to remove dangerous trees from their properties. All a homeowner needs is a report from a certified arborist or landscape architect who says the tree poses a danger.
Current Miami law says that unless residents can prove a tree is dangerous, they have to pay for a number of surveys and mitigation practices that some consider far too onerous.
"My clients have to spend thousands of dollars just to remove one tree from their property," says Ron von Paulus, a certified arborist and the owner of Big Ron's Tree Service. "They need to get a land survey, a tree survey, a tree risk assessment, and still have to mitigate by planting trees or donating to the tree trust fund. That's already over $3,000."
Von Paulus tells New Times that despite the directive of the new state law, he received an email from Miami's Environmental Resources department saying the city will "proceed in accordance with [its] existing code" and that following its code would be in the best interest of himself and his client.
Earlier this month, Commissioner Ken Russell posted a Facebook Live video explaining the new law and how the city believes the state legislation poses a danger to the tree canopy Miami has spent years protecting. Russell said the city will enforce its existing tree ordinance as it is written.
"This [state] law was written with good intentions, but... it poses a danger that unscrupulous arborists and speculative developers can go hog-wild cutting trees to make room for developments," Russell tells New Times.
Russell defends Miami's decision to operate as normal, saying that because of the vague wording of the bill, it doesn't necessarily conflict with the city's laws. Because the bill mentions only "dangerous" trees, Miami's laws still fall in line. If a resident believes a tree to be dangerous, they only need to take pictures of it and send an email to the city, and they can then remove it without a permit or report. If anything, the new law requires an extra step of residents because they need an arborist's report, Russell says.
Some arborists, including von Paulus, intend to follow the state's direction rather than the city's.
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"I've got a client that has a palm tree banging against his wall, and the city refused to permit him to remove it. I'm gonna follow the state law and cut it down, and I'll put him in touch with an attorney in case the city tries to fight it," von Paulus says.
That kind of confusion is what the city is trying to avoid, Russell says. The City of Miami Commission is planning several town halls and informational sessions in the fall to educate the public on what the law says and how they should deal with their trees. Residents and arborists who don't follow the city's ordinance will be scrutinized and punished.
The City of Coral Gables, another Tree City USA designee, tells New Times in a statement that it is doing "substantive analysis of the adverse impact" that the law will have on the city's "well-known tree canopy." After the analysis is done, Coral Gables will issue an administrative order and act accordingly.
House Bill 1159 is the latest in a long line of preemption laws the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature has passed to prevent local governments from, well, governing. Other recently passed laws include restrictions on gun-control reform and affordable-housing initiatives.