Gainesville’s battle over heritage oaksGainesville’s battle

by Angela Wilson with Arbor Conscious Tree Service

Gainesville is a Tree City. With 60 percent canopy cover, our city has one of the most cohesive canopies in Florida, but even a Tree City must provide adequate sidewalk spaces for its citizens. Recently, four heritage oak trees—two Live Oaks and two Shumard Oaks—have sparked a conversation around town about the public sidewalk space we all share.

Early in the summer of 2023, after a trip and fall lawsuit was filed, an investigation revealed the sidewalks along SE 1st Ave. and SE 1st St. were not up to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility code. The ADA code states all sidewalks must be at least 36 inches wide to provide an accessible route. The ADA code supersedes the Gainesville City Code of Ordinance that protects heritage trees within the city limits with permitting and resident notification. Certainly, these sidewalks were built originally up to code, so what had happened to prompt this lawsuit?

During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, many restaurants were closed and some even shut down due to the strict Centers for Disease Control guidelines. To alleviate the strain, the City of Gainesville encouraged more outdoor seating. The businesses along SE 1st Ave and SE 1st St took this opportunity to expand into the surrounding sidewalks and created decorative border walls. 

The trees were not notified and continued to grow with roots expanding out of their planters. The roots and the walls put a squeeze on the sidewalk space and reduced the width, creating a trip hazard.

In light of the trip and fall lawsuit, the City of Gainesville sprang into action and declared the Public Works Department will remove the trees and their imposing roots immediately. This swift action did not please the citizens of Gainesville. 

To the people of Gainesville, these trees were a welcome relief from the obtrusive heat and the trees’ Heritage Tree status gave them more protection. A Heritage Tree is a native species with a diameter at breast height of 20 inches or more. A call to action was sent out and many citizens responded. 

On March 23, Gainesville held a City Commission meeting and opened the floor to public comment on the issue. Many people stood up and spoke for the trees. The final decision was to prune the roots of two trees. and remove and chop up the other two. This ruling was better than removing all four oaks, but the tree-people of Gainesville were still not done.

On March 31, a candlelight vigil was held for the two trees destined for the wood chipper. An anonymous individual pinned a poem to the trees writing “… Maybe for the first time maybe for the last. Thank you for the shade on Florida’s sunny days…” 

As a visual protest, a local legend and former city arborist chained herself to the trees as hundreds of concerned Gainesvillians protested the destruction of these beautiful trees. For now, the City of Gainesville has decided not to remove the trees. There has been a root prune and an asphalt edge has been added to widen the sidewalk. This is only a temporary solution as the trees will continue to grow, but I hope that we can grow as a community along with these magnificent trees.

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