Palm Coast tells some property owners to replace trees cut down by tornado

Article Courtesy of  Daytona Beach News Journal

By Tony Holt

Published December 29, 2013


PALM COAST — On Monday, Daniella Verdone was still simmering down from a state of panic.

Less than 48 hours earlier, she and her teenage son were hunkered down in the utility room of their house while portions of the roof were being ripped off by a tornado.

On Monday, cleanup crews were carefully removing debris — some of which was tangled with electrical wire — from her property. Her backyard wasn't safe, her insurance company wasn't cooperating and she was coping as best she could.


She wasn't expecting a city official to drop by and tell her she needed to replace a couple trees in her yard that had been cut down by the storm. He handed her a tree-removal permit form with hand-written instructions about what kind of trees she needed — one shade tree and one under story. She had six months to comply.

Verdone was flabbergasted.

“I was like, 'Really? I mean, really?' I have so much I have to worry about and (the city) is concerned about my trees?” she said.

As she talked about it more, her language got saltier.

Other residents complained the city had done the same to them. They said they were visited by Bill Butler, landscape architect for the city of Palm Coast.

“What happened after the tornado was that the city sent several staff members out into the neighborhoods to assist homeowners with tree issues,” city spokeswoman Cindi Lane wrote in an email. “Instead of making the owners come to the city to get their tree-removal permits, we had (Mr.) Butler and other staff members go into the field — called in to work on their day off — to issue the permits on the spot.”
The F1 tornado formed shortly before 7 p.m. Dec. 14 in Espanola, headed east for nine miles and cut through Palm Coast. It touched down in three neighborhoods and damaged at least 185 houses, according to the city. Damage estimates exceed $5.5 million.

Butler lost his home to a wildfire in 1985. Lane said Butler approached all owners “from a place of compassion and empathy and in no way from a regulatory position.”

In all, the city issued tree-removal permits for 34 properties on Sunday and Monday. Among all the permits, six required tree replacements, Lane said.

Michael and Suzanne Bispo got their notice Sunday. Suzanne said her husband knows Butler. The two had a friendly conversation and Butler was nice about everything. Nonetheless, neither she nor her husband was happy about the timing.

“My husband said (to me), 'Do they really think I care about trees at this time?'” Suzanne Bispo said.

The couple's permit stated they need to plant two shade trees. Butler wrote the specific size and grade of trees they needed.

On Verdone's form, the 30-day requirement was crossed out and replaced with six months. Bispo's form, however, didn't include any such change. As of Thursday, the couple was still under the impression they had just 30 days to replace the trees.

But Suzanne and her husband have been more preoccupied with cleaning debris and fixing holes in their roof, walls and pipes. A restoration crew was still working at their house five days after the storm.

Butler said he tried to make the correction to every form. If the 30-day requirement wasn't changed on any of them, it was an oversight. Lane said everyone who was told of the tree replacements will have six months to comply — and the city is willing to be even more flexible.
“The city still believes it is appropriate for owners to receive tree-removal permits and to replace protected trees as required,” said Lane. “However, instead of putting a hard deadline for that tree replacement, we have decided to reassess each case after six months to check on the progress of repairs at that particular home. We understand that if construction work is continuing, it may not be appropriate to replace a tree before that work is complete.

“Eventually, we'd like to have the trees replaced — within a year, ideally,” Lane said.

Tree removal on developed lots in Palm Coast requires a permit. Only certain trees can be removed — dead trees, those that pose an imminent danger, and any pine tree within a distance from a structure that is less than the tree's height are a few examples. Removal is granted only after an application is filled out and after a city arborist inspects the tree.

Those who refuse compliance face fines issued by the city's Code Enforcement Board. The city, however, is always willing to listen whenever an extension is needed, Lane said.

Protected trees that are in excess of the “minimum tree density” for a lot can be removed without replacement, but the storm knocked down enough trees on the properties owned by Verdone, Bispo and four others, that replacement is required on those properties, according to the city's tree ordinance.

Butler said he was called in Sunday by his boss, city planning manager Ray Tyner, and told to visit neighborhoods struck by the storm and check on hazardous trees.

That allowed Butler to meet with property owners face-to-face and hand them the necessary permits to remove dangerous trees. The thought behind it was to facilitate the process and ensure safety, officials said. The city also wanted to warn residents about the risks of unlicensed contractors. Butler handled a lot of that.

“There was a safety factor. That was really the overall goal,” said Tyner. “The intent was just to try to help.”

Butler said he learned from his own personal experiences how delicate such a situation can be. He conveyed empathy and said the people he spoke to understood what he was trying to do.

“I have some compassion for what they are going through,” he said. “I know how devastating it can be to lose everything.”
Flagler County Property Appraiser Jay Gardner also visited affected neighborhoods in the days following the tornado. He said he encountered one resident who was furious about the city demanding she replace a couple of the trees in her yard. Gardner said he understood her anger and encouraged her to contact the mayor.

“If it was my employee who did something like that, I'd pull him in and talk to him about it,” said Gardner.

“This is not a situation where someone cleared the lot and ignored the rules,” he continued. “It was inappropriate to do that.”

Gardner said it was the only mistake the city made during the recovery process, based on what he has seen and heard. Otherwise, the response was outstanding, he said.

City Manager Jim Landon said if city officials had to do it over again, they wouldn't have issued the tree-replacement orders so soon after the storm. Issuing the permits and accelerating the process of removing hazardous trees was the driving force behind it all.

“Our intentions were good and we're letting people know they don't have to plant trees right now if they don't have a roof on their house,” said Landon.

Landon also said it was important for the city to replace its trees following a tornado, hurricane or other disaster. The city doesn't want to leave behind a “long-lasting scar,” he said.

Palm Coast's emphasis on trees, said Lane, makes it a unique and desirable place.

“This is our standard and people love our standards,” she said. “It's a huge source of pride for the community.”