Could heritage oaks lost in Seagrove Beach leave heritage of their own? New tree ordinance possible.

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SEAGROVE BEACH — The heritage oak trees cut down in Seagrove Beach in May by a developer without a permit may leave a heritage behind, as their loss has branched out into an effort to establish broader tree protection measures in Walton County.

Leigh Moore, executive director of Scenic Walton, a nonprofit organization that works "to preserve the natural beauty and enhance the quality of life in Walton County," convinced the Walton County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday to have the county and the public begin work toward an ordinance to ensure that historic and protected trees across the county are preserved.

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After hearing a brief presentation from Moore, who called the loss of the Seagrove Beach oaks "the final straw for the community," commissioners unanimously directed the county's planning department staff to work with a residents' committee which Moore represents to develop a proposal for a new section of the county's land development code to address tree preservation.

A worker stands on the roof of a structure on a 2-acre tract in Seagrove Beach as part of a crew that improperly cut down a number of heritage oak trees at the site where a residential development is planned. The loss of the trees has prompted a citizen-led effort to boost tree protection across Walton County.

As part of their directive, commissioners told Moore and county planners to host public workshops to gather input for any proposed changes to the land development code.

A number of the heritage oaks that gave Seagrove Beach its name were lost in May when a crew working for Coastal Custom Home Building of Santa Rosa Beach cut them down, under the impression that a county permit issued for the destruction and removal of structures on the site also covered removal of trees or other vegetation.

A cluster of stumps was all that remained after this heritage oak tree in Seagrove Beach was cut down by a crew working for a developer. The loss of a number of oaks at the site has prompted a citizen-led effort to improve tree protection measures in Walton County.

At a public meeting in September held to discuss plans for the site, Wylie Hutchison of Coastal Custom Home Building apologized for cutting down the trees, telling a crowd of about three dozen people, "We got it wrong up front. ... We are sorry we took the trees out."

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After the meeting, though, Hutchison sidestepped a Daily New question regarding whether his proposed development could have proceeded without cutting down the trees.

"It's hard to say," Hutchison said.

Hutchison at the time was proposing six two-story houses and one three-story house, each comprising 4,000 or more square feet, for the 2-acre site between Headland Avenue and Gardenia Street on the north side of Walton County Road 30A.

Walton County code officials posted a stop-work order on a residential construction site in Seagrove Beach in May after a number of heritage oak trees were cut down without the proper permit. The loss of the trees has galvanized an effort to ensure more stringent tree protection measures in Walton County.

In the days since the oaks were lost, Scenic Walton and at least one other local nonprofit group, the South Walton Community Council, have come together with concerned residents, including at least a couple of certified arborists, to form a committee aimed at boosting protection of trees across the county, Moore told commissioners Tuesday.

But Moore added that interest in the issue extends beyond just the committee.

"The community at large cares about this," she said. "I think that's evident through statements made in meetings and social media comments and feedback (about the lost trees)."

Moore also pointed out that a recent meeting between county officials and Seagrove Beach residents to discuss potential road projects in the community included a "front and center" discussion of the lost heritage oaks and future protection of trees.

Two live oaks stand in front of the Coast Hippie shop in Seagrove. The builder pursuing a 7-lot residential project planned for Seagrove Beach apologized Tuesday for cutting down a number of large live oak trees on the property earlier this year, but indicated through an attorney that he  isn't interested in pursuing the project under the county's "major development" protocol, which would require additional scrutiny.

In addition to ensuring that the land development code adequately addresses tree protection, Moore suggested Tuesday that the county should put a mitigation program in place, "so that when large trees over a certain (to-be-determined) size, do need to be removed ... there's money to plant trees to replace them elsewhere to preserve the (county's tree) canopy overall."

Moore suggested to commissioners that there are reasons to preserve tress beyond just aesthetics. She said trees are important tools for managing stormwater and protecting water quality.

They are "a way that we can let Mother Nature help us to achieve some of the things the county is working to achieve otherwise as well," she said.

Overall, Moore said she and other residents "want to stop the loss (of trees) and mitigate it in any way possible."

A couple of stumps were all that remained of a heritage oak in Seagrove Beach after a work crew cut them down without having a permit. An effort now is underway to boost tree protection in Walton County.

Commissioner Tony Anderson, whose district includes Seagrove Beach, urged a deliberate approach to the issue, reminding Moore and others that the felled heritage oaks "were illegally cut" and that if the developer "had ... followed the code, they wouldn't have been cut."

"I think we need more input from the public before we get an ordinance or change the comp plan, (the county's comprehensive development plan)," Anderson said.