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Advocates Rally To Save Escambia County's Largest Known Heritage Tree

Margaret Hostetter
Courtesy Photo
Escambia County's largest known tree is at risk of removal to build a three-story mini storage unit in Pensacola.

A group of passionate citizens is coming together to save Escambia County’s largest known heritage oak tree.

The tree, which is 85 inches in diameter and has a circumference of more than 22 feet, was approved for removal to build a three-story mini storage unit. But some citizens are hoping to appeal the development.

A Change.org petitionhas collected over 1,400 signatures in three days to save the heritage oak located on a parcel of land at 6155 N. Palafox, which was recently purchased by Bell W M & Co. to expand the A+ Mini Storage.

“This is so urgent because if we can’t save the largest known heritage oak tree then there is not a hope or prayer in the world for other trees,” said Margaret Hostetter, who runs theFacebook group Trees of Escambia County Florida.

Last Wednesday, Hostetter and several other citizens were at the Escambia County Review Committee meeting to share their concerns and make passionate pleas to Horace Jones, the county’s director of development services.

Hostetter and others say the county’s environmental code should be enough to save the tree. According to the section on tree protection and preservation, any tree 12 inches or greater in diameter at breast height (DBH) cannot be removed or harmed without “appropriate authorization from the county.”

Additionally, heritage trees 60 inches or greater DBH are subject to greater protection because, the code states, “such large mature trees providing proportionately more of the benefits associated with trees, and often defining the local landscape.”

Will Dunaway, a private land attorney with the local firm Clark Partington, also spoke at the Aug. 11 meeting. He said the code simply does not allow for the removal.

“It says authorization to remove a protected tree shall — and that’s important language — be granted where there has been a failure to take reasonable measures to design and locate proposed improvements so that protected tree removal is minimized,” he said reading the code verbatim.

Dunaway said if the business was his client, the application wouldn’t have been sent.

“If they said ‘Mr. Dunaway, I’m looking at a site that’s really close to my site, I want to build a building on it can I do it? We’d look at it and, in this case, we would say ‘no you can’t do that … because the code does not allow.”

Dunaway plans to file an appeal on the development — the deadline is Aug. 26. Until then, citizens have been emailing Escambia County Commissioners and plan to make their case at the next meeting on Aug. 19 at 8:30 a.m.

Mary Gutierrez, an environmental scientist and executive director of Earth Ethics, Inc., says she hopes the historical significance of the tree should “count for something.”

“It’s been around for hundreds of years,” she said. “You can’t get that back. You can’t compensate for that tree by planting another. Escambia County just celebrated its bicentennial, we embrace our history very much. That should include its natural resources.”

“We shouldn’t discard it because it has no monetary value.”

Large heritage trees are beneficial to the environment by not only providing air and shade, but they’re efficient at managing stormwater runoff.

“We don’t have any issues with development in general, or the specific business,” Guiterrez said. “The tree just should not be removed.”

Hostetter said the group has named the tree in question the “A+ Storage Heritage Oak Tree.” She said the name is fitting because it would get an A+ grade.

“This is the perfect tree,” she said.

And she hopes the perfect tree will shine a light on what she sees as a bigger issue in the county — its imperfect tree ordinances.

“It’s so weak, it’s laughable,” she said. “We also need to bring attention to this sad situation.”

Escambia County has not responded to inquiries from WUWF as of the publishing of this article.

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.