TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The Mayor of Tampa is sending a strong message to anyone who illegally cuts down trees in the city.
His post comes after a Tampa Bay-area tree-cutting company received the biggest fine in the city’s history.
Miller & Sons Tree Service was fined $234,427.50 for violating state law. Mayor Jane Castor said that in 2019 Miller & Sons felled protected trees along Gandy Boulevard and Schiller Street without a permit.
City arborists determined the trees to be healthy, however, owner Jonathan Lee deemed the trees unsafe.
In 2019, the state changed the law saying local governments have no say in dangerous trees on residential properties.
The city argued that the two properties were not residential. A circuit court judge ruled that at least one location was zoned for commercial use, the Gandy property.
The city filed an ethics complaint and last month the International Society of Arboriculture issued a public reprimand against Lee.
“They found his behavior was unethical and illegal in this instance,” Castor said. “They were found in violation.”
Lee was unavailable for an interview on Monday, but sent this statement to 8 On Your Side:
Miller and Sons will file an appeal with the District Court of Appeals regarding the circuit courts’ decision to uphold the fine imposed by the magistrates. We value trees in our community and work with many residents and businesses to do a variety of tree work, including tree preservation plans, construction-related tree protection, and more. The case stems from the removal of 27 hazardous trees from a mobile home park in 2019 after the passage of new state law. The debate with the city is rather the property that was zoned commercial should have qualified for state law given how residents resided there at the time of the appraisal and tree work. Miller and his sons did not clear cut the property and there were large healthy trees that we would not sign. Several other arborists have determined the trees to be in poor condition at this location and we can assure you that trees must meet certain criteria to be considered for removal. Ultimately, it is the owners decision to cut down the trees. The owner settled with the city for $30,000 and ended up selling the property for over 2.5 million, which left us fighting the city because they wouldn’t discuss a settlement with us. In my opinion, it is more about optics and politics given the poor condition of the trees. The city even said in a previous post that they weren’t questioning the condition of the trees, but rather that the property met the criteria. because it was zoned commercial.
It was clear from the start that the city of Tampa felt the new law was a violation of autonomy and said it would fight to change it, which it succeeded. Miller and his sons should not be a pawn in this fight between city and state and we attempted to discuss the matter with the city several times before it became a legal issue. We value the trees in our communities and the health of our customers’ trees, but we are not the ultimate decision makers of what an owner decides to do. We can only diagnose tree deficiencies and assign them a hazard rating and provide options.
Additionally, for the city and the court to argue that Gandy’s property did not meet the criteria for state law, it seems unfair that a mobile home property would not qualify. If they had the right to reside there for several decades, the right to vote in the district in which they resided, how could they not be considered residents. The city also tried to label the mobile homes as condemned when the trees were removed and placed stickers on each mobile home on 8/14/2019 requiring residents to vacate the premises by 11 a.m. that day. , giving them less than 2 hours to leave their homes. I believe it was an attempt to stop tree work at the time, but it would have made people homeless. Finally, the mobile homes were registered by Hillsborough County as mobile homes in 2019 and many years prior to 2019 and were also registered by the Florida Department of Health as a mobile home park, but the Magistrate called it some sort of trailer facility and said they weren’t registered with the health department which the circuit court upheld. If that was part of their justification for ruling against Miller and his sons, a quick search would show that it is factually incorrect and has in fact been certified. When we placed this certificate on file, the decision was never corrected.
We will always have a balanced approach to tree care and preservation while respecting the decisions of our clients and we will strive to understand and follow the laws as they may change which has become often. We respect the right of cities to protect trees, but find it sometimes arbitrary, inconsistent, and perhaps driven by political and monetary factors.