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Appeals Dismissed In The Heritage Tree Case

Margaret Hostetter
Courtesy Photo

The appeal to save an 85-inch, in diameter, live oak heritage tree at risk of removal to build a self-storage building has failed.

The Escambia County Board of Adjustment voted unanimously Monday, after four hours of arguments, to dismiss two appeals for lack of legal standing.

Attorneys representing the county and the land owner argued the cases didn’t establish proper standing, according to the county’s Land Development Code. According to the LDC, applicants of appeal would be an entity or person who would “suffer an adverse impact that differs in kind (as opposed to degree) to any adverse impact suffered by the community as a whole.” That is, the person would be directly affected by the development.

The case for the heritage tree started last month when the county’s Development Review Committee approved the removal of a the 85-inch live oak on the A+ Storage property, 6155 N. Palafox. W.M Bell Co. of Santa Rosa County LLC purchased the property next door in April to build a 16,000-square-foot, three-story, mini-storage unit.

Hostetter and a group of concerned citizens appeared at the August meeting to advocate for saving the tree, saying it went against the county’s Land Development Code.

Protected trees larger than 65 inches in diameter are classified as “heritage trees,” according to Escambia County’s tree ordinance. The ordinance requires developers to meet criteria in order to remove trees. If the removal is approved, they have to pay a fee and plant mitigation trees. Heritage trees carry higher fees and mitigation requirements.

In the case of A+ Mini Storage, the developer has paid the county $24,010 to remove 17 protected trees from the lot, including the heritage live oak.

Hostetter filed an appeal, as well as attorney Will Dunaway, with the Clark Partington law firm, on behalf of Emerald Coastkeeper, an environmental organization in Northwest Florida. In the appeal, he pointed out that the Land Development Code says no authorization to remove a protected tree “shall” be granted if there has been a failure to take reasonable design improvements that avoid taking down the tree.

“(The staff) have simply not complied with the requirements,” he wrote.

The issue has gained support throughout the area, with more than 5,400 signaturesof support on a Change.org petition since last month. Supporters have also hosted vigils at the site.

Escambia County Assistant Attorney Kia Johnson and Brian Hoffman, who was representing the landowner, both argued that the appeals had no standing.

Hoffman said the appeal could set a precedent for any other entity to challenge county developments.

“They could come to this board and basically demand … to put the county on trial,” he said.

Hoffman also tried to argue whether the appeal had proper standing since it was filed with a typo — Dunaway’s paperwork said "Emerald Coastkeepers," instead of the singular Emerald Coastkeeper, which took up about an hour of the meeting.

Laurie Murphy, executive director of Emerald Coastkeeper, said her work with local governments to look at more mindful development established her proper standing for the appeal.

“There’s no way they (A+ Mini Storage) can compensate,” she said in regards to removing the tree. “That is what is going to create a problem for our organization that spends oodles of time with the city of Pensacola and the county on developing the tree ordinance. If we were able to do that based on the comments from the public, then we wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

At the podium, Hostetter did not establish a standing for her appeal, but asked for the opportunity to present her case to save the tree.

“The (appeal for) the last development the question was never even raised of whether that applicant had standing,” she said before a heated back and forth with one of the board members.

The board then voted unanimously to dismiss the case.

After the meeting, Hostetter, said she worries not just about the tree at A+ Mini Storage, but other cases that may come in the future.

“This is a symbol of what is supposed to be protections,” she said. “But there are no protections unless the owner wants to save the tree.”

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