Clearwater pauses its tree removal program following residents' outcry

Thousands of trees in Clearwater are spared from the chopping block, at least for now.

The city paused its tree assessment and inventory program after an outcry from the public. Residents said the arborist hired by the city was cutting down some trees without proper explanation.

"It was like someone had died," Lisa Johonnesson said.

Johonnesson said when she saw that the arborist removed two trees in her neighbor's yard and was shocked.

"It was devastating," she said.

She said she and her neighbors believed the trees were healthy.

The city’s tree assessment and inventory program evaluates trees in the city’s right of way and marks them with blue tags. City officials said about 20,000 are in the right of way. They look at the trees’ species, diameter, and condition and rate them on a scale of zero to six.

If it’s below a three, it could be removed. Just because it has been tagged, though, doesn’t mean it will be removed. You can read more about tree tagging on the city’s website.

"In my front yard alone, I lost 100 percent," Denise Buttacavoli told the city council and an audience at a city council meeting Thursday. "One hundred percent of the natural beauty. One hundred percent of the wildlife connection. One hundred percent shade and comfort and 100 percent joy."

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Buttacavoli said her trees were more than 40 years old. Several others spoke about the tree removal process at the meeting too.

Partially due to the public’s outcry, the city paused the tree assessment and inventory program until it’s reviewed more. The city’s public works department is in charge of tree removal and spoke at a city council work session a few days before the city council meeting.

Members of the department explained to the council that the city is divided into five zones with about 4,000 trees per zone. They only completed Zone One before it was paused. 

The program costs about $30,000 per year. A consultant conducts inventory on one zone per year.

According to data from the public works department, 262 trees were removed from Zone One. There were 413 trees that received ratings of zero or one.

"This is where it starts to get a little concerning for me," Dan Mirabile, Director of Public Works, said. "If there are 4,000 trees per zone as Matt said, then these numbers would represent approximately 10 percent of the trees in Zone One. When you factor in trees rated two, that could bring these numbers greater than 20 percent of trees in Zone One that may be subject for removal."

Mirabile said part of the reason so many trees have been rated so poorly is that the forestry crew hasn’t been adequately staffed, and hasn’t been able to properly maintain trees. He also said they’re not being provided enough information when it comes to why the trees are given certain ratings.

Mirabile told council members that the city has dropped the ball on this program. They’re reevaluating the program over the next few months.

They’ll clarify the tree rating system, create a right-of-way tree planting program, discuss the notification protocol and timeline before removing a tree, which right now says they have to give the resident 48 hours’ notice, and clarify what is a right-of-way versus private property, he said.

"It’s critically important," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "Obviously, we’ve got some citizens that are very concerned as I think the council is too."

City leaders also discussed possibly making things right with homeowners who’ve had trees unnecessarily removed.

Johonnesson said she’s happy the city is listening and she wants to make sure they get it right with her neighbor and overall.

"I don’t think they should restart the program until they have someone who can make a more educated choice about what trees they’re going to take because I don’t see anything wrong with taking diseased, dead trees that’re doing damage one way or another, but if a tree is 80-years-old or even 20-years-old and it’s not doing any damage, I don’t know why they would have to take it," she said.

The public works department will present a reevaluated program to the city council in three to four months. Residents said they’re meeting to brainstorm input that they want to give to the city regarding the program.