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Tree Trimming Realities

May 1, 2012

Given City Commissioner Carolyn Cooper’s recent politicization of tree trimming I find the following email I received from City Commissioner Steve Leary reassuring. The majority of our city commission seems appropriately committed to making thoughtful judgments for the long term benefit of Winter Park. City staff reviewed the city’s tree trimming policies and reasoning during the April 23, 2012 city commission meeting, including this slide presentation.

Regards, Pete Weldon

From: Winter Park City Commissioner Steve Leary

Date: April 30, 2012


We have an issue with our tree canopy, though it may surprise you it is not the one that some would lead you to be believe is worthy of panic.  The problem is not that the Winter Park Electric Utility (WPEU) is “butchering” trees.  A recent e-mail sent out by a resident included a photo of a tree with a large V swath cut through the middle of it.  The photo is being held up as a supposed example of the new trimming ‘standards’ that the WPEU is practicing.  The problem is that the photo is of an unhealthy tree that is scheduled to be taken down (there is a red mark on the right side of the tree about halfway up the trunk identifying it as such).  The large swath is intended to make the tree safer and easier to take down.

The Commission had requested our arborists present an overview of our past practices, current procedures and proper pruning methods of/for our tree canopy.  They did so during our regularly scheduled Commission meeting this past Monday evening (4/23).  The professionals informed us that trimming to a random standard length (say 3-4 feet) weakens trees, makes them more susceptible to disease and insects, creates safety and reliability issues and is economically inefficient.  Commissioner Cooper preempted this presentation by forwarding on the misleading photo and wrote that she would ask for a return to a specific trimming length.  This seemed to lend credibility to the photo, and as we learned on Monday evening, improper trimming methods.

I am disappointed that Commissioner Cooper sent out this e-mail prior to, and counter to the recommendations from professional arborists on how to properly care for one of our most important assets.  Our City Manager is always available to verify facts and should have been consulted prior to creating unnecessary discord in our community.  It is important to note that Commissioner Cooper’s e-mails are not authorized or supported in any way by the City or the Commission.

For those of you that have heard nothing about this, below I provide researched information verified by staff.  For those of you that are aware of the issue and a bit distressed, I wish to provide you with the facts in hopes of allaying fears.  I will also provide some next steps and possible solutions to both the faux controversy and the true issue.  This is long, but hopefully informative.  Thank you in advance for taking the time to read through it.


The Winter Park Tree Canopy is comprised of 75,000 trees.  There are 22,000 trees along the WPEU Right-of-Way (or ROW).  Of these trees 5,000 are in some type of conflict with the Utility Lines.  All of these numbers are staff’s best estimates.

The WPEU was formed in 2005.   Managing the trees around powerful electric lines requires specially trained and certified individuals for obvious reasons.  While the Winter Park Forestry Department (WPFD) arborist has inserted himself into the process, he has NEVER been responsible for the trees in and among the power lines.

As described on Monday evening by our arborists, the proper way to prune a tree is to cut back to the first node (lateral branch) or limb that is at least 1/3 the diameter of the limb being cut or removed.  If you do not prune in this manner and simply trim to a randomly selected length (3-4 feet), the tree will shoot out ‘suckers’ at the point of the cut or dieback to the next lateral to support the parent branch.  This is oftentimes where decay begins and continues to develop.  These suckers grow back fast, are extremely weak attachments due to elongated cell growth and fill in the void from the cut with small branches.  While green, these suckers weaken the limb, increase decay/disease/insect infestation in the overall tree, decrease vigor and vitality, and hasten the demise of the entire tree.

The Winter Park Live Oak Fund website shares that “a Live Oak can live 200 years or more, with 150 years or more not at all uncommon in an urban environment.” Yet an improperly trimmed tree is less sturdy, more susceptible to storm damage and has a shorter lifespan due to the reasons above.

By practicing proper directional pruning, rather than trimming to a randomly selected length, our lives oaks can last up to 200 years and provide a beautiful, safe canopy.  Most of the trees in Monday’s presentation and along the ROW are Laurel Oaks which are a weaker species than Live Oaks and much more susceptible to decay, storm damage and have a shorter life span.  Most of the Laurel Oaks within the ROW are mature, or over-mature.  Age diversity and other factors are extremely important in an urban environment where trees are much more stressed than in a natural setting. This has the added benefit of creating reliable and efficient delivery of electricity.

For decades, even before we formed the WPEU, there has been pressure exerted on contractors to trim to shorter lengths for aesthetic purposes.  Sometimes more drastic prunes are necessary, and while better for the tree, the canopy, public safety, electric reliability and the city’s budget, these may appear to some to be a bit unsightly until the tree begins to fill back in.  We have roadways throughout the city that were pruned back in this fashion and at the time of the pruning there were some complaints.  However, today these are established, beautiful and healthy canopy streets.

So the real issue is not a few trees that have recently been pruned in the proper manner to protect our ROW canopy.  The real issue is protecting and planning the effective management of our entire canopy.

During the hurricane season of 2004, weakened trees and limbs fell on lines, cars, homes and created greater electric delivery challenges and additional expense.  Mother Nature pruned our trees, but not correctly for the health of the trees.  Since the hurricanes the trees have been left without proper sanitation prunes to slow the decay process and try to salvage viable branches to extend the lifespan of such trees.

One way to increase aesthetics, canopy health and reliability, which all lend to greater fiscal management, is to underground our utility lines.  Since 2008 we have undergrounded roughly 10.4 miles of electric.  Our current plan will have the rest of the electric underground in 17 years.  There are ways in which to hasten the process, but all require a greater financial commitment.  Perhaps residents upset by the aesthetics of a slight percentage of our ROW canopy, would be willing to help raise funds to more quickly underground our utility lines.

Outside of an expedited undergrounding strategy, I offer the following for discussion:

1.    Trim to shorter lengths:

a)    Pros: more aesthetically pleasing short term to some, as suckers fill in

b)    Cons: compromised tree health, compromised safety due to weakened limbs and trees falling, compromised safety from children climbing trees that have branches within arm’s reach of power lines, added expense as more expensive contractors trim more frequently

2.    Prune to recommended lengths:

a)    Pros: a healthier canopy, a safer canopy, more reliable electric delivery, less expense

b)    Cons: mostly aesthetic until limbs fill in with healthy growth

3.    Combination of A & B:

a)    Take down unhealthy trees that are a safety/reliability hazard

b)    Trim unhealthy trees that are not a safety hazard, to shorter lengths.  When they become safety hazards, we can schedule them for replacement.

c)    Prune healthy trees to the recommended length that will thrive long past undergrounding is completed around them

d)    Initiate an aggressive program to replace dead or dying trees so that when undergrounding is completed, we have a healthy mix of more mature, stately, healthy, properly pruned trees and younger trees

Whether we proceed with option 1, 2, 3 or some other, we should follow all standards so as not to create liabilities for the City or professional decertification for our Staff (e.g., ANSI A300, ISA Best Management Practices, ISA Code of Ethics for Certified Arborists, etc).

We have charged staff with presenting an Urban Forestry Management Plan to ensure a healthy, safe and aesthetically pleasing canopy for years and generations to come.  I expect this to include an overlay of our utility undergrounding plan.  This will allow that we are properly pruning back to standards wherein when we underground the utilities along a set of trees, they will fill in as soon as possible upon completion of the undergrounding.  We have the talent and experience to create such a plan now that the WPEU has hired an arborist who has done such a thing in the past.

In regards to some of the incorrect information contained in the resident’s e-mail;

We have in the past properly pruned trees back to healthy and safe distance.  Drive along Summerfield between Golfside and Ranger, Webster between Pennsylvania and New York, or much of Palmer Avenue.  Those trees were pruned properly years ago, and they are not just beautiful now they are also healthy. At the time, there were complaints that these efforts were too aggressive. Now we have trees that are expected to contribute to the canopy for years to come.

The arborist in our Forestry division has never been responsible for the care of those trees. And while the WPEU arborist does not report directly to the City Manager, she reports directly to the Director of the WPEU who reports directly to the City Manager.  This is the same reporting structure that has the Forestry arborist reporting into the Director of Parks and Recreation who reports directly into the City Manager.

Responsibility for maintenance of trees along the streets, or the ROW trees, has not been ceded to home owners.  The City still maintains responsibility for these trees.

In regards to the Forestry Department; their staffing levels have no effect on Utility Line pruning whatsoever as this department has never been responsible for ROW tree maintenance.  It is true that we have reduced staff in our Forestry Department.  We were having difficulty filling these positions and we were seeking more efficient ways to manage overhead. The results have been overwhelmingly positive as we have seen significantly increased work levels for less money.

We do know why we improperly trimmed to shorter lengths rather than pruning to arborist recommended lengths.  It was due to pressure on our contractors.  Our new arborist recognized the dangers of the previous practices and began to rectify the situation with what is seen as perhaps more drastic, but proper, pruning methods in an attempt to address the overall health of the canopy.

Is it possible that Winter Park may lose half of its mature oak canopy? Perhaps. One of the major reasons will be because in the past our trees have been trimmed improperly rather than pruned properly.  They are paid by the hour and if they have to come back for more frequent trims, regardless of the health of the trees, it is not a concern for them. However, if we implement an Urban Forestry Management Plan, we should expect to rectify this issue

Claiming that by moving the oversight function for ROW tree maintenance to the WPEU, is akin to “the fox guarding the hen house” is rhetoric.  Arborists by nature are tree lovers, or they might have chosen to be mechanics.  It is true that our new arborist is interested in reliability AND safety.  However, she is also attempting to correct the sins of the past for the overall health of the canopy both near and long term.  And as stated before, the WPEU arborist reports into the City Manager in the same manner as the Forestry arborist.

Finally, this does not have to be a political issue.  We should come together as a community to support the development, implementation and management of an overall canopy plan that will guarantee the highest quality canopy for short and long term safety, reliability and aesthetics in an ecologically and economically responsible manner.  One way to do that is to listen to the professionals charged with presenting the facts and a plan.

Some will take the opportunity to launch bombs and claim that certain staff members and/or Commissioners hate trees.  I take a more positive perspective and believe that we all wish for the same beautiful canopy that has helped define Winter Park for generations.  We may just disagree on plan specifics.  Either way, we can discuss the plan once it is developed and not jump to conclusions until we hear from those that have the training and experience to develop such a plan.

I hope that you, and others that read this, will forward this more balanced perspective on to others in hopes of rectifying any concerns that were raised in previous e-mails.  Thank you for taking the time to read this and become accurately informed.

Best – Steve

Posted in Parks, Policy.

One Response

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  1. T. Kitchin says

    A real epistle but highly informative. I love it when the City takes the time to tell us in detail what is going on and why. While time consuming, this approach I believe is capable of quickly/surely defusing a potentially tense issue.

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