The months-long legal battle over an Escambia County heritage tree and its 16 neighboring protected trees could come to an end.
An Escambia County Circuit Court judge recently dissolved a temporary emergency injunction that protected the other 16 trees from being cut down as well.
Judge Jan Shackelford on Monday signed an order terminating the injunction, which allows the owners of A + Mini-Storage – WM Bell Co. of Santa Rosa County LLC – to continue developing plans to expand their mini-business to storage on land that shelters the trees.
The owners of A + Mini-Storage did not respond to requests for comment from the company’s attorney, Brian Hoffman. Hoffman himself declined to comment for this article.
Lawyer Will Dunaway, who filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of Emerald Coastkeeper Inc. to prevent future development from endangering the trees, also did not respond to the News Journal’s request for comment. Emerald Coastkeeper Executive Director Laurie Murphy could not be reached for comment either.
Earlier this year, conservationists launched a legal battle to save a large heritage tree on land adjacent to the A + Mini-Storage at 6155 N. Palafox St.
The living oak, which was 85 inches in diameter, has been classified as a “heritage tree,” meaning there are higher fees and mitigation requirements to keep it away. Heritage trees should be greater than 60 inches in diameter.
When the owners of A + Mini-Storage wanted to expand their business, they purchased the neighboring land which contains the heritage tree and 16 other trees, which have been classified as “protected” by the county code, to build a larger one. large storage facility.
Old cover in heritage oak
On August 8, Escambia County staff at a development committee review meeting approved the removal of the heritage tree as part of the company’s land use plan.
When activists learned on October 31 that tree care professionals had started cutting down the heritage tree, Dunaway hand-delivered an emergency injunction to the construction site ordering a halt to the felling, which was signed by First Circuit Chief Justice John L. Miller.
The injunction was too late to save the heritage tree, but it protected the other 16 remaining trees that activists said were protected from being felled until the case was considered further by a judge.
A subsequent hearing took place earlier this month. In his written order dissolving the injunction, Shackelford said that “there was no evidence to suggest that the proposed building was not an” authorized use “under the” county code. “
Further, Shackelford said the testimony given to the court by Andrew Holmer, the Planning and Zoning Division Director of the Escambia County Development Services Department, supported “a conclusion that the removal of trees protected could not be avoided and still allowed authorized use “.
The ordinance noted that the business owners’ plans called for leaving six of the 16 protected trees on the property.
Shackelford concluded his order with a clear direction.
“Both sides seem to agree that an honest debate regarding the overall plan and the (land use planning code) should continue. However, the Circuit Court is not the place for such a debate,” Shackelford wrote. . “Because the plaintiff is unable to demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success on the merits – ultimately showing that the development order is in fact inconsistent with the overall plan – the court concludes that the temporary injunction should be denied. “
Escambia County is at the start of a ethics complaint investigating Director of Development Horace Jones’ management of the Heritage Oak case.
Resident Margaret Hostetter filed an ethics complaint earlier this month against Jones, claiming he lied when saying his staff reviewed the development order that allowed the heritage tree to be cut down.
All ethics complaints are referred to the director of human resources who acts as the ethics officer of the council of county commissioners, and it is up to the director to decide whether the complaint goes ahead.
Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8680.