MANATEE -- Manatee County planning officials are betting streamlined fees and a more lenient standard for replacing trees developers remove will help rebuild the county's leafy canopy.
Under an amended fee schedule issued in March, developers are now allowed to replace mature trees they cut down with nursery stock that is, in some cases, smaller than previously required. It's a move geared toward making the county a little more green.
The modified fee structure is intended to encourage developers to replace trees they remove or, even better, not remove them at all. They are only charged a "payment in lieu of replacement" if they choose not to replace a tree cut down at a development site.
Bill Bors, the county's urban forestry manager, said the schedule was changed, in part, to encourage developers to replace what they fell. Smaller trees cost hundreds of dollars less and are more plentiful at local nurseries and tend to grow faster than larger sizes.
"We're trying to meet the nursery market and also use sizes that are out there with Florida number-one nursery grade quality," he said.
In-lieu payments, as well as tree removal permits, put money into a tree trust fund that pays to plant trees in county road medians and landscaping.
For those who do take the replacement option, doing so has become simpler. Before the schedule change, developers had to purchase one of four sizes to replace differing sizes of tree. The largest replacement trees, measuring 5 and 7 inches in diameter, have been removed from the replacement schedule. Now, only 3- and 4-inch trees are required, depending on the size of the tree removed.
The new schedule eliminates the two most expensive in lieu of replacement fees, $645 for replacing 16- to 30-inch trees and $1,700 for trees more than 30 inches. The two fees it retains increase, from $345 to $445 for instances where 3-inch replacements would be required, and from $495 to $585 for 4-inch replacements.
Still, the fees do add up and give some developers pause. Bors said he recently met with a landowner interested in cutting down a number of legacy oak trees. Tree removal fees and not replacing those trees would cost him about $45,000.
"The best use of the tree trust fund is a deterrent to taking down trees where it's not necessary," Bors said.
The new schedule is expected to have its greatest impact on retail and commercial properties where space is tight and where the price of a smaller replacement tree versus a larger one makes a difference. Bors said the net effect of the changes will encourage developers to replace trees more often, particularly when large trees are involved. This is a preferred outcome to leaving a property treeless.
Bors said it is rare for housing developers to pay the in-lieu fees as they typically choose to replace trees.
Buying trees has become a more expensive proposition in the last couple years. During the Great Recession, many plant nurseries cut back on the number of trees they were growing as demand from the housing industry dried up. With the recent surge in the housing market, trees are selling quickly.
Eddie McKeithen, owner of Myakka City tree farm McKeithen Growers, grows his own trees, but larger stock is rarely on his tree lot these days.
"Every day I'm telling customers that I don't have it," he said.
The 3- and 4-inch trees he does have to sell go for more money than they did a year or two ago. Prices are up $100 for each size, making each a $450 to $550 proposition. McKeithen said the change to the tree fee schedule makes sense "in a tight market when the supply is not necessarily meeting the demand."
Fees collected last year from tree permits largely funded the planting of about 165 larger trees on county property and about 5,000 seedlings planted as part of a larger project at Duette Preserve.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.