From Danger to Risk: An Update on Florida Tree Law

When Chapter 2019-155 passed in the Florida legislature in 2019, shockwaves throttled through the circles of Florida’s tree care professionals. Local government laws often afforded trees certain protections (i.e., typically requiring permits for the removal of trees above certain sizes), but now these local laws and ordinances could be bypassed so long as certified arborists or landscape architects were consulted and deemed trees as a source of “danger.” What started as an attempt to allow property owners more discretion unfortunately devolved into legal disputes centered on semantics. As cases started to crop-up, much emphasis was placed on the word “danger.” Danger is a word loaded with ambiguity – as we often pass-through life encountering day-to-day activities that are actually quite dangerous in the right context of circumstances (e.g., walking without falling, swallowing food without choking, and even just remembering to continually breathe, etc.) but are generally free of much danger. Another example, meteor impacts are extremely dangerous events, but the probability of being smote by a space rock while in the middle of yoga class is almost unmeasurably low. So, under these broad terms – how is any multi-ton mass of wood suspended above ground not anything but a potential source of danger? …or more bluntly, how is any tree not dangerous? This lack of clarity could then be exploited by property owners seeking to declare a tree a “danger” in order to have unwanted trees removed completely free of local oversight – under the old version of the law all that was required was an acquiescent arborist or landscape architect willing to declare a given tree a menacing “danger.”

 

Florida’s arboricultural professionals therefore saw the need to work with lawmakers to reframe this language, and fortunately, they had an existing framework that could be plugged in for much needed clarity. Shifting the language from “danger” to “risk” was seen as most crucial. “Risk” implies something much more tangible – something grounded in probability, the field of risk management, and even international standards. In fact, an entire program was developed by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) to provide arborists a suite of tools to determine tree risk in a relatively objective manner and then report their findings to clients (i.e., via Tree Risk Assessment Qualification or TRAQ). Generally, risk operates on the assumption that there is a “target” that can potentially be impacted by a bad outcome and a source of risk that can lead to the bad outcome. Trees may have “risk features” which are typically mechanical defects (e.g., a lifted root plate, a hollow trunk, dead branches in the canopy, etc.) – these features can be identified and potentially worsen over time. The other side of the equation are the “targets” which can mean any person or thing that can be impacted by the failure of the defect. A risk rating can be assigned via the determination of “Consequences of Failure” and “Likelihood and Failure of Impact.” These factors can be assigned a classification and then worked into a matrix to establish a risk rating. Here is an example of the ISA risk rating matrix:

 

The legislation has dropped “danger” and now stipulates “A tree poses an unacceptable risk if removal is the only means of practically mitigating its risk below moderate…” which is based on the ISA TRAQ risk rating matrix. These legislative updates will go into effect July 1st, 2022 – a large victory for tree care professionals seeking to maintain impartiality and ethical integrity in these types of disputes. The law is also now grounded in our most current and up-to-date scientific understandings of tree care and risk management. Hopefully, this will provide more cut-and-dry outcomes (pun unintended) for proposed tree removals in Florida moving forward and less conflict between property owners and local governments.

 

 

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Posted: June 3, 2022


Category: Florida-Friendly Landscaping, Forests, Home Landscapes, Horticulture, Natural Resources, UF/IFAS, UF/IFAS Extension
Tags: Tree; Risk; Law; Danger; Florida;


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