Commentary

I think you will never see a FL county so hostile to a tree

July 22, 2021 7:00 am

A clear-cut area in Santa Rosa County. Credit: Save our Soundside

Hey, do you remember nostalgia?

That longing for simpler, happier times can be a powerful force in American life, affecting the success of everything from “The Way We Were” to “Make America Great Again.”

Nostalgia can evoke such powerful feelings that the guy who coined the term in 1688, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, considered it a type of mental illness, like paranoia. One doctor thought the proper treatment was “pain and terror.”

The thing is, those “simpler” times were not exactly happy ones for everyone, and I am not just talking about the lack of indoor plumbing and effective deodorant. I thought about this when I read a story in the Pensacola News Journal last week about a controversial vote in the Panhandle’s Santa Rosa County.

The county commissioners there were voting for killing trees — lots of them.

In a move that sounds exactly like something out of Florida of the 1960s, the commissioners voted down a recommendation to ban the widespread practice of clearcutting by developers.

I was so moved by this — it wasn’t even Throwback Thursday! — that I wrote a poem about it. It starts, “I think that I shall never see/A commission so hostile to a tree.”

Reading the story made me feel as if I’d just hopped in a Hot Tub Time Machine and blasted back to the days when developers could do anything they wanted, no matter what the consequences to everyone else. Back in the Swinging-Ax Sixties, they could chop down anything in their path, drain wetlands with impunity, and even dump fill dirt in a bay to create land where none had existed.

And never did they ever worry about providing new roads, sewers, and other infrastructure that’s needed to accommodate new growth. No sir, that bill went to the taxpayers at large. Meanwhile, the developers could just sell off the cookie-cutter homes and move along to the next big payday — er, I mean project.

Then, starting in the 1970s, all those pesky environmental regulations started getting in the way, darn it! Requiring permits before developers could smother a wetland or dump fill in a bay. Protecting trees from rampant destruction. Protecting endangered species, even. What an attack on Freedom-With-A-Capital-F!

You’d think the good people of Santa Rosa County would be grateful for their commissioners’ devotion to returning them to the Good Old Destructive Days. After all, without all the rampant clearcutting, how could we laugh about the irony of subdivisions named “Nature’s Cove” and “Airways Oaks”? And we could all use a good laugh these days, right?

Renae Moyers and her dog Triscuit investigate downed tree at Natures Cove in Santa Rosa County. Credit: Save Our Soundside

Yet somehow, the local residents are about as amused as Queen Victoria in a wool dress on a 95-degree day. Around 100 upset people showed up for the meeting on the clearcutting issue, and they stuck around for hours waiting for their chance to speak their minds about it.

Turns out they want the builders to stop cutting down every bit of greenery in sight — not because they love trees or even shade, necessarily, but because the clearcutting was giving them a whole lot of what you might call “pain and terror.”

When the developers bulldoze all the trees, explained real estate agent Dara Hartigan, who lives in the town of Midway, “then they bring in red clay to build up the area.”

But whenever rain falls, the clay doesn’t let storm water soak in the way the swamps and forests used to do. Neither do the new homes and driveways built atop the clay, she explained.

“And suddenly,” she told me, “the nearby homes are flooded.”

 ‘They just laughed at us’

I, too, am occasionally subject to an attack of nostalgia.

When I think back to my childhood in the Panhandle, some of my fondest memories are about the times I’d go visit my grandmother and spend hours wandering in the piney woods behind her farmhouse in Santa Rosa County. She got her eggs from a chicken coop, taught me about how you could smell the rain before it arrived, and called dragonflies “skeeter hawks.” Sometimes at night we could hear whippoorwills singing in the trees.

Back then, the place where she lived seemed to me to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forests and swamps and other farms. These days the boundaries for “nowhere” are a lot smaller, thanks to thousands of new residents — mostly retired military personnel — whose ranch-style homes have supplanted the plants.

Keeping trees intact amid new development does more than make Joyce Kilmer fans happy. According to a 2019 report by the Florida Association of Counties, trees “help with floodplain management, fight the urban heat island effect, and provide critical habitat for resident and migrating birds.”

I, personally, like the fact that they soak up a lot of the CO2 we humans produce and then convert it into the oxygen we need so we can keep on living.

Other Florida counties have dealt with rampant growth like Santa Rosa’s while requiring the developers to leave some of the native vegetation intact. They have even gone so far as requiring developers to pay impact fees to cover the cost of new facilities such as fire stations and schools. Santa Rosa County’s 1991 development code required neither of those.

There were other gaps in the development rules, too, as Hartigan discovered six years ago when she heard “sounds of violence” from down her street. She went to investigate and saw bulldozers roaring around and knocking down big trees like a giant bowling ball running wild amid hundreds of Brunswick pins.

“I figured that was a violation of the tree ordinance,” she said. But when she reported what she’d seen to county officials, she said, they told her, “Little lady, a tree has to be 5 feet wide to be protected.”

When she said that she’d never seen a 5-foot-wide tree in Santa Rosa County, the reply was, “Exactly.”

Later, she saw a parcel of property that was slated for clearcutting that she knew had a lot of wildlife on it — an eagle’s nest and gopher tortoise burrows, among other things. With the help of a friend, she documented everything and sent it along to the county.

“They just laughed at us,” she said.

She formed a group called Save Our Soundside (because she lives on the Santa Rosa Sound side of a peninsula), and that group has gained members from around the county, she said. They have been advocating for their county to stop kowtowing to developers.

This year, there’s a chance to make a change at last. Or so it seemed until last week.

Before all the trees disappeared

Six months ago, a geologist named Sam Mullins from Milton accepted an appointment to the Santa Rosa County zoning board. He was appointed by a commissioner named James Calkins. Mullins thought that by being on the board, he might help to end the old scrape-the-ground raw approach to growth in his native county.

He soon learned that although the county commissioners had appointed the zoning board, they frequently turned a deaf ear to its recommendations.

Developers would show up at a board meeting to seek a change in zoning to put a lot more homes on a parcel of property, he said, and the zoning board would unanimously recommend a no vote. But then the commissioners would disregard the zoning board and give the developers carte blanche, Mullins told me.

Red clay fill dirt, Santa Rosa County. Credit: Save Our Soundside

Still, the zoning board members took their responsibility seriously as they reviewed possible changes in the land development code. Because of all the complaints about flooding, the zoning board voted unanimously — 10 to zip — to recommend an end to clearcutting the trees.

They told commissioners that the new code should require developers to keep 25 percent of their subdivision properties natural. They also recommended the commissioners require developers keep a buffer of 50 feet of trees and other vegetation in between the edge of a property line and the edge of wetlands.

The commissioners rejected those recommendations — although they did adopt a 25-foot wetlands buffer and trimmed the size of “heritage trees” from 5 feet to 4 feet in the north end of the county and 2 feet in the south end.

At that point, though, Mullins had had enough. He stood up and told the commissioners he was done.

“I’m not going to be on a zoning board that has commissioners that continuously go against the recommendations,” he said amid loud applause. “So, I’m resigning now.”

He also blasted the commissioners for putting the issue down at the end of their agenda, making the public wait until past midnight to get their say (the meeting lasted nine hours). And he warned them about the consequences of constantly saying yes to developers, because “you all pass these things and allow the homes to go in, then we have infrastructure problems with drainage, with roads, because you all allow that.”

The commissioners said they were just upholding the grand American principle of property rights — although apparently just the property rights of the folks cutting down the trees, and not the ones complaining about all the flooding of their streets and homes.

When I talked to Mullins, he said their motive was less about principle and more about pumping up their campaign coffers.

“They’ll deny it, but some of the biggest money backers for their campaigns are these same developers, so they always wind up doing their bidding,” he said.

Meanwhile, the developers don’t want to give up clearcutting, he said, “because it makes it all easier on them when they’re laying out the homes and roads and sewers if they don’t have to go around the trees.”

I felt bad for Mullins, but perhaps he should have expected the commissioners to do something like this after what happened during an April workshop on the land development code. County officials put up an idea board, and one commissioner — Calkins, the one who appointed Mullins  — posted a card that said, “MORE CHURCHES MORE GUN STORES KEEP SANTA ROSA GREAT!”

This is not, of course, the change that the angry homeowners wanted. And, honestly, “more gun stores” may not be the best message to send to people who are ticked off at their elected officials about repeated flooding. We will see what finally makes it into the new land development code when the commissioners vote on it on Aug. 19.

I tried calling both Calkins and the commission chairman, Dave Piech, to talk to them about this, but I couldn’t reach either one. I suspect they didn’t respond because they were too busy firing up their Hot Tub Time Machine to return to the good old days when a man could cut down 100 or 200 trees all at once and nobody thought twice about it.

But as I was looking through photos of the denuded landscapes, the toppled trees, and the thick layer of red clay that sends storm water cascading next door, I had a thought. It occurred to me that the folks who are being inundated by the runoff are probably pretty nostalgic too — but what they miss are the good old days before all the trees disappeared.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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