Safety Harbor loves its trees

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UPDATE JUNE 27, 2019: Governor DeSantis signed CS/HB 1159: Private Property Rights, which will impact local governments’ tree ordinances, on June 26. Per City Manager Matt Spoor, city staff will review and update the City Commission later this summer.

At the June 17 Safety Harbor City Commission meeting, resident Tanja Vidovic, former contributor to the Safety Harbor Sun, presented a proposal to strengthen the existing tree ordinance. Residents, including artist and Safety Harbor Art and Music Center co-founder Heather Richardson, spoke in support of Vidovic’s proposal. Richardson said it was “appropriate to re-do the ordinance and make it more proactive, not just a pretty picture.”

The following morning as she drove down Main Street, Vidovic encountered workers removing trees at Main Street and Second Avenue North. She parked her car and began filming. In a Facebook Live video, Vidovic suggested the city was removing healthy trees. Vidovic advocated saving the trees by moving sidewalks or leaving some trees in place while new trees grew in the park.

People stopping by the park site that day expressed dismay. A teary-eyed B.J. Lehman, owner of B.J.’s Flower Shop and a descendent of the McMullen family, recalled that she, her father and grandfather played in and under the oaks on Main Street as children. Others, such as Safety Harbor Senior Living center employee Denise Vining, supported the city’s action. Watching the work, Vining stated that the trees were diseased and “one was hollowed in the middle.”

On Friday, Mayor Joe Ayoub shared information about the park project and responded to concerns in a Facebook post.

Ensuing social media commentary reflects support for the tree removal and for alternative methods that may have saved some of the Main Street trees.

Over the weekend, Vidovic reflected on the disappointment and frustration she felt as she drove down Main Street on Tuesday morning and saw workers felling the trees:

“I feel like there was a sense of urgency. Just the night before, I had so much hope that we, even being a little town, were coming together and working towards leading the community towards a sustainable future. I had plans to bring the plans for the park up to commission to ask them to review it. When I saw the trees being cut, I felt hopeless, like there was nothing I could do to stop it. I saw the nests falling, the animals jumping and residents tearing up as they watched… in less than four hours the trees that they watched grow be leveled. The shade that we all enjoyed, no more. All of this rushed through me. The big picture is that we have a climate crisis; the small picture of prevention is protecting the earth and caring for its trees.”

Baranoff Park

The City Commission approved plans for Baranoff Park, developed by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, at the May 20 City Commission meeting. (Vidovic began researching the park project to write a story for the Safety Harbor Sun following the May 20 Commission meeting. The proposed article was pulled when Vidovic decided to work on a new tree ordinance.)

On Friday at the park site, Safety Harbor Arborist Art Finn and Community Development Director Marcie Stenmark confirmed the trees were not healthy and some were potentially dangerous. Stenmark said the City could not risk having a tree fall on someone.

Seven Water Oaks, two Live Oaks, one Bluejack Oak and a Sabal Palm were removed.

Water Oaks generally have a shorter life span than Live Oaks. According to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) website, “young [Water Oaks] should be trained to develop a central trunk and then will require only occasional pruning once established. Naturalized trees often develop with several upright multiple trunks which are poorly attached to the tree. Horizontal branches droop toward the ground as additional growth adds to their weight. They can split from the tree in wind storms, deforming the plant and beginning the process of decay and decline. They appear to be poor compartmentalizers of decay since many are hollow at 40 years old.”

Two Live Oaks were removed in part due to proximity to existing side walk. The Sabal Palm (tree 12), which had not been recommended for removal according to the City’s Baranoff Park Tree Inventory (see also, diagram), was located near the proposed Main Street park entrance. The final park plan approved by the Commission included moving the park entrance from Second Avenue North to Main Street, per City Manager Matt Spoor. Relocating the entrance led to removal of the Sabal Palm. This will allow the entrance to have a wide view of the park’s central feature: the Baranoff Oak.

Three Live Oak and two Magnolia trees are planned for the new park. Finn said the new trees will be planted fifteen feet inside the park perimeter to avoid future encroachment on sidewalks.

Baranoff Park Plans (City of Safety Harbor)

Per Stenmark, six concrete loungers pictured in the plan will not be purchased. (The City Commission discussed the expense and practicality of the loungers at the May 20 meeting.)

Tree protection

Safety Harbor residents view the Baranoff Oak (and trees in general) as a symbol of their city – and the city has taken steps to ensure its health. Stenmark pointed out large steel beams supporting the Baranoff’s great branches; earlier in the year they replaced deteriorating wood beams. Looking up, visitors may spot wires along some of the branches. Finn explained: The Baranoff and some of the city’s other large oaks have lightning protection systems. The wires direct lightning strikes away from the trees and into the ground. The Baranoff Oak has a micro-jet irrigation system for dry periods. Finn said this irrigation system has been “crucially important” to the oak.

In addition to lightning protection and irrigation systems, the Baranoff Oak has Finn, who checks on the tree and its soil regularly. Finn is not just concerned with Safety Harbor’s signature oak. He shared emphatically that he “loves all trees,” including those cleared for the new park. “Before they were removed,” he said, “I hugged every one of them.”

According to City Manager Matt Spoor, final completion is slated for October. The City, Spoor shared via email, “uses ANSI A300 standards in all of our tree work.”

The Tree Care Industry’s ANSI 300 standards provide guidelines including soil management, root management, and protection practices prior to and during demolition, construction, and landscaping.

Caring for the giant Baranoff Oak is an ongoing process, during park installation and afterwards. The huge tree has suffered – and been rehabilitated – in the past. Disruption to the tree’s root system or the soil it lives in can have serious impact; The process of installing something as wonderful as a new park can alter the tree’s environment when in-ground concrete and pavers are removed and soil is impacted. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources clarifies the concern:

“Any wound to the roots, stem or main branches of a tree, caused during construction, is considered construction damage. These wounds can occur during any building activities around trees that cover the soil, disturb the soil, or simply driving near the tree with heavy equipment. Construction damage can occur on projects as small as paving a patio.”

Baranoff park
West side of Baranoff Park (Photo/Kathryn Malaxos)

Asked about removal of trees for the new park, Stan DeFreitas – “Mr. Greenthumb,” an author, horticulturist and International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist – said he had not seen the trees to be able to assess them. DeFreitas said he generally works to keep trees in place whenever possible.

According to DeFreitas, Live Oaks are thicker-wooded than Water Oaks because they are slower growing. He estimated that, depending on the size of the tree, it could take twenty-five to thirty years for replacement trees to provide the same amount of shade as those removed. DeFreitas said although “people don’t usually fertilize in parks, nutrients, organic fertilizer at the base” would benefit the new trees’ growth.

Regarding an update to the tree ordinance, DeFreitas said Safety Harbor should have a committee of citizens to review decisions and provide an alternate voice. “When trees are on your logo,” he asked, “shouldn’t citizens have input?”

Tree ordinance

Safety Harbor loves its trees. The City has been a member of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program for thirty years. Trees are not a new topic of conversation.

Tree City USA Standards
  • Standard 1: A Tree Board or Department
  • Standard 2: A Tree Care Ordinance
  • Standard 3: A Community Forestry Program With an Annual Budget of at Least $2 Per Capita
  • Standard 4: An Arbor Day Observance and Proclamation

In 2007 Safety Harbor leaders engaged in discussion hosted by St. Petersburg College to determine the City’s vision and set goals for a five-year period. They identified “adopting a tree ordinance” as a strategic action for that year. It took a bit longer for Safety Harbor to adopt one of its own.

In 2014, residents’ protested the removal of trees on the Safety Harbor Spa property. The city enacted a temporary moratorium on tree removal and got to work on a new ordinance. Residents gave input and the tree ordinance – Ord. No. 2015-03, § 1, 3-16-2015 – was adopted in 2015.

At the June 17, 2019 City Commission meeting, Commissioner Andy Zodrow, an attorney with the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County, said Safety Harbor relied on Pinellas County’s tree ordinance when writing the 2015 ordinance. The Pinellas County ordinance, he said, “actually allowed you to replace oak trees with crepe myrtles.” Zodrow said the 2015 ordinance was a compromise, adopted with expectation that it would be reviewed. City Manager Matt Spoor confirmed some modifications, including fines, were made to strengthen the ordinance in subsequent years.

Commenting on the current ordinance Zodrow said, “I don’t think it is working well… I want to make sure that remains on a front burner, there is obviously a lot of citizen support for that.”  Zodrow encouraged the Commission to continue discussion of a revised tree ordinance. Echoing resident Heather Richardson’s comments in support of Vidovic’s proposal, Zodrow noted “The trees are more important than ever.”

The International Society for Arboriculture has Guidelines for Developing and Evaluating Tree Ordinances.

Kathryn Malaxos has lived in Safety Harbor since 1990. She is a mother of two grown humans and a dog who may never grow up. Kathy started teaching in 1989 and continues to work as a public school teacher. She is a graduate of USF St. Pete’s master’s program for Digital Journalism & Design. Contact her with story ideas and suggestions at