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Tree Removal Laws in Jacksonville, Florida

April 5, 2013 Construction Industry Legal Blog

Reading Time: 9 minutes


In Jacksonville, Florida, do you have the right to cut down trees on your own property at will?  You might be surprised to learn the answer is “no.”  Having recognized the vital role trees play in our ecosystem, Jacksonville, Florida has enacted tree removal laws to protect against the over-destruction of trees.  In sum, these laws require a permit to remove “protected” trees, require mitigation for removed trees, and empower the city to enforce civil fines and criminal punishment for violation.

In Jacksonville, there are two local sources that embody tree removal law: (1) City of Jacksonville Charter Laws, Article 25. – Minimum Standards for Tree Protection, Conservation and Mitigation During Development (“Jacksonville Charter Laws”); and (2) Jacksonville City Ordinance, Chapter 656 – Zoning Code, Part 12. – Landscape and Tree Protection Regulations (“Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations”).  Of these two, the latter is the most recently revised, has the broadest application, and imposes the stricter requirements.  Accordingly, this blog will focus on the Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.  It’s important to note here that other municipalities in the Greater Jacksonville Area have enacted their own distinct tree removal laws.  See e.g. City of Jacksonville Beach Land Development Code Section 34-424. Site Clearing and Tree Protection Standards.

Generally speaking, tree removal laws are constitutional.  See Watson v. St. Petersburg, 489 So. 2d 138 (Fla. 2d DCA 1986), rev’w denied, 494 So. 2d 1153 (Fla. 1986) (holding the City of St. Petersburg’s tree ordinance constitutional because it contained sufficient standards to guide the city manager in determining whether a tree removal permit should be granted or not, so as to guard against an arbitrary decision); Clemente v. Earnest, 516 So. 2d 981 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987).

“Protected” trees.  Tree removal laws turn on whether a tree is protected or not.  “Un-protected” trees can be removed at will, without a permit.  It is only so-called “protected” trees that trigger the tree removal laws.  Thus, we’ll begin with an examination of what constitutes a protected tree.  A tree on private lands will be termed protected if it fits within one of the following classifications:

1)  a tree with a circumference at breast height [four and one-half feet above ground level], of three feet or more; or

2)  any tree with a smaller circumference that is utilized by a developer as a tree conservation credit or that is planted by a developer to meet mitigation requirements.

However, under parts 1) and 2), a protected tree shall not include (a) any species of pine, other than the Long Leaf Pine (Pinus palustris), (b) any species of palm, other than the Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto), or (c) any tree currently identified as an invasive species, terrestrial weed or noxious weed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection or the St. Johns River Water Management District; or

3)  any tree with a diameter breast height (“DBH”) of six inches or more located on any lot within 20 feet of a street right-of-way (including an approved private street or other access easement); or

4)  any tree with a DBH of eight inches or more located within ten feet of any other property line; or

5)  any tree with a DBH of 11.5 inches or more located elsewhere on the lot; or

6)  any hardwood tree with a DBH of 24 inches or greater (“Exceptional specimen tree”).

Section 25.02(a), Jacksonville Charter Laws; Sec. 656.1203(bb), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.

No protected tree shall be cut down, removed, or damaged (“removal” or “removed”) without first having obtained a permit.  Sec. 656.1205(a), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.  The permit will require tree mitigation to compensate for the loss of living trees removed.  However, there are certain exemptions to mitigation.

Exemptions.  Some important exemptions to mitigation include:

1)   Lots on which either single-family dwelling or a mobile home is located.  Sec.656.1205, Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.

2)  Any tree of the palm family, other than the Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto), or the pine family, other than the Long Leaf Pine (Pinus palustris) located on that portion of a lot which is more than 20 feet from a street right-of-way (including an approved private street or other access easement), or more than ten feet from any other property line.  Id.

3) Any tree that poses imminent danger to the public health, welfare or safety, and requires immediate removal without delay. In such instances, verbal authorization to remove a protected tree may be given by the Chief. Id.

4)  The following nuisance and invasive species of trees: Pond Willow (Salix caroliniana), Chinese Tallow (Sapium sebiferum), Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), Chinaberry (Melia azedarach), Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera), Golden Raintree (Koelreuteria bipinnata) and Cherry Laurel (Prunus caroliniana).

5)  Any tree determined to be a danger to traffic flow or traffic site visibility by the Chief of Right of Way and Grounds Maintenance.  Id.

6) Any tree determined to be in a required fire break by the Chief of Right of Way and Grounds Maintenance.  Id.

7)  Protected trees which are determined by the Chief to be dead or deteriorated as a result of age, insects, disease, storm, fire, lightning or other acts of nature. Sec. 656.1206(h)(1), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.

In many cases, exceptional specimen trees (defined as hardwoods with a diameter of 24 inches or more) are specifically excluded from exemption.  Sec. 656.1205(d), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.  Be aware that, where an exemption is claimed, an applicant must still obtain a permit pursuant to Section 656.1206 for a fee of $25 and provide supporting evidence that the applicant is entitled to the exemption, as requested by the Building Inspection Division.  Sec. 656.1205(b), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.

Obtaining a Permit.  In Jacksonville, permits for tree removal shall be obtained by filing an application with the Building Inspection Division.  The application is available here.  An application for tree removal permit must include a site plan and a statement explaining why the protected tree is proposed to be removed or relocated.  Sec. 656.1206(a), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.  The approval or denial of the permit application is based on fourteen factors found in Sec. 656.1206(f), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.

Mitigation.  Tree mitigation comes in various forms and is governed by sixteen provisions found at Sec. 656.1206(h), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.  Replacement is a common form of mitigation:  protected trees identified for removal may be replaced with new planted trees, unprotected trees or transplanted trees.  Id.  Other than live oaks and exceptional specimen trees, which require a one to one replacement, the total caliper inches of replacement trees shall equal one-third the total caliper inches removed, unless otherwise approved by the Chief.  Id.  Protected live oaks removed shall only be replaced with live oaks.  Id.  When there is significant loss of mature tree canopy or specimen trees on a particular site, the size of replacement trees may be increased by up to twice the minimum caliper by the Chief in order to compensate for that loss. New palms may be used only to replace protected palms removed. Replacement species used shall be approved by the Chief and should comply with Section 25.02(h), Jacksonville Charter Laws.

In lieu of replacement, a permit applicant may elect to contribute to the Tree Protection and Related Expenses Trust Fund.  The required contribution is calculated as follows:

For every two caliper inches, or fraction thereof, of replacement trees which would otherwise be required, the contribution shall be equal to the retail value of a planted two-inch caliper nursery grown shade tree. The retail value shall be calculated by taking the average of the median current wholesale price, published by North Florida nurseries, for a container grown, and a balled and burlapped two inch caliper laurel oak, multiplied by two. The retail value shall be recalculated and adjusted annually on October first.

Section 656.1206(h)(14), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.  As of August 26, 2010, the mitigation cost for protected tree removal was $57.00 per caliper inch.  COJ Bulletin L-04-10.  Alternatively, mitigation in certain off-site locations is an option.  Id. at (15).  Another option lies in conveying qualified lands to the City of Jacksonville.  Id. at (16).

Enforcement.  Whenever the Chief has evidence that a violation of any provision of this Subpart has been or is being committed, he shall issue a written notice or order upon the violator.  The notice shall briefly set forth the general nature of the violation and specify the manner and a time within which the violation shall be corrected.  Sec. 656.1208(a), Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.  The Chief can order the work stopped until the violation is corrected.  Id. at (b).  To correct the violation, a violator must pay double permit fees and mitigate the tree caliper loss.  Here, mitigation can be by way of replacement, pursuant to the rules described above.  However, the total caliper inches of the replacement trees shall equal the total caliper inches of the protected trees removed.  This differs from the replacement requirement of 1/3 to 1 caliper inches if properly permitted prior to removal.  Alternatively, mitigation can be accomplished by making a contribution to the Tree Protection and Related Expenses Trust Fund to compensate for each replacement tree which is not planted.  If the site has been cleared and the trees have been removed from the site so that the Chief is unable to determine with reasonable certainty the number of protected trees removed in violation of this Subpart, the violation shall be corrected by paying a civil fine of up to $50,000 per acre.  Id. at (c).

A person who fails to correct the violation, after being noticed, may be guilty of a class D offense and punished accordingly.  Id. at (e).  A separate offense shall be deemed to have been committed for each tree removed, damaged or destroyed.  Id.  Class D offenses are punishable by a fine of not more than $500 or by imprisonment of not more than 60 days, or by both a fine and imprisonment.  Sec. 632.1019(a), Jacksonville City Ordinances.

In addition to other remedies and notwithstanding the existence of an adequate remedy at law, the City of Jacksonville may seek injunctive relief in the Circuit Court to enforce the provisions of the Jacksonville Tree Protection Regulations.  Id. at (f). The City shall be entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including appellate fees and costs in an action where the City is successful in obtaining affirmative relief.  Id.

In conclusion, the tree removal laws of Jacksonville, Florida are quite complex.  The ramifications for violation can be quite severe (e.g. tripling of mitigation expense, even criminal punishment).  Thus, a prudent person would be wise to contact the Building Inspection Division, or an attorney, prior to removing any tree in Jacksonville.

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