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Oct. 31, 2019

Kaycee Lagarde

Court Rules in Favor of Protecting Heritage Oak Tree 

A judge has ruled in favor of protecting a heritage live oak tree on North Spring Street that the City of Pensacola has been working to prevent from being cut down. 

On Wednesday, Oct. 30, Judge Jeffrey L. Burns of the First Judicial Circuit Court denied the property owners' motion to dissolve a temporary injunction preventing the removal of the tree, allowing the injunction to remain in place. 

"The injunction will serve the public interest, as the tree ordinances in place were enacted by local government officials elected by the voters of the City, and are the reflection of the public interest of the residents of Pensacola," Judge Burns wrote in his ruling. 

The Spring Street heritage live oak was at risk of being removed at the request of the property owners, despite multiple expert opinions finding it to be healthy. The City of Pensacola filed a declaratory judgment action in an effort to save the tree and also raised some questions to the court to get clarification about how to interpret a new state statute that replaces local government processes for evaluating whether trees should be removed from residential properties to protect public safety.

In his ruling, Judge Burns determined that the city proved each required element to keep the injunction in place, including presenting evidence that it will suffer irreparable harm and establishing that the injunction will serve the public interest. 

"There is an immediate danger of significant loss or damage if the injunction is not maintained, as an irreplaceable 200 plus-year-old tree will likely be removed without the injunction remaining in place," Judge Burns wrote. 
The City's Code provides for removal of dangerous trees and protection for certain trees that are healthy. The new state law delegates to professional arborists and landscape architects the duty to determine if a tree is unsafe, but it does not specify the documentation needed to make that determination. How that decision is made and whether it is objective were among the questions posed in the city's declaratory judgment action.

Judge Burns provided some guidance on interpreting the new state statute, concluding that any documentation rendered on whether a tree is dangerous must conform to industry standards applicable to certified arborists and licensed landscape architects. 

His ruling also stated: "Accordingly, the only reasonable interpretation of section 163.045 (1), Florida Statutes is one where: (1) an arborist or landscape architect must determine that a tree is a danger; and (2) for the determination and documentation to be rendered utilizing only the methodologies and official documents applicable to the two respective industries."
The City of Pensacola strives to have practices that respect individual property rights and  are not burdensome on property owners, but the city also places value in protecting healthy trees from being destroyed. The hope is that guidance with this new state statute will not only help Pensacola and its residents, but also other municipalities that are looking for assistance with interpreting this law.   
A heritage oak tree
Tree branches in the sunlight

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