Where is the Tree Commission? Mobile group hasn’t met since March, sparking concerns among city’s tree advocates

John Robb attended the Mobile Tree Commission’s March 15 meeting and discussed several projects with commissioners that included tree landscaping along Airport Boulevard from Azalea Road to Interstate 65.

Robb said he left the meeting with an understanding that commissioners wanted to continue discussing the plans at the next meeting.

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Five months later, that meeting has not happened. The commission, a seven-member group of volunteers appointed by the Mobile City Council, has not met since that March 15 session.

Robb has also been unable to reach a commissioner by phone or email to get an explanation for the consistent no-shows.

“Met on March 15 and then it went off the cliff,” said Robb, We approached the Mobile City Council on Tuesday, to express his concerns and push for the council to fill two of the commission’s vacancies.

“They would post a meeting (notice) on the website in April, and then have to take it down because of no quorum,” he said. “The same thing happened in May, June, and July. Then, in August, they said, ‘we really want to meet.’ But when everyone got there, no commissioners showed up. No one called and said why they would not be there.”

frustrated city officials

Commissioners are unpaid volunteers who are appointed by council members to serve on a group charged with approving or denying permits for cutting, trimming, or damaging trees in the city’s right-of-way.

The commission, formed through state law in 1961, also serves as an educational resource promoting Mobile’s unique cultural and civic connection to the live oak trees, an unofficial city symbol.

The lack of tree commission meetings is frustrating Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration which, over the years, has come under criticism by tree advocates for how it manages sensitive preservation issues of Mobile’s live oaks.

James Barber, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the lack of commission meetings has “slowed down the progress of business” in Mobile because a tree removal or alteration might be needed to pursue with a project. The commission, he said, must decide first before the project can proceed.

Barber’s city’s administration will propose an ordinance soon to move that project does not meet for two consecutive meetings – or, within 3 days — “then allowing a business to forward its project” will occur, .

That process includes having the city’s lone arborist provide a recommendation on what trees can be removed or salvaged during a construction project.

“I don’t want to give the appearance that it’s arbitrary on tree removal,” Barber said. “But what we don’t want to see is construction or commercial projects held up due to a lack of a quorum. We’re approaching five months now without a quorum.”

Barber said that city ordinances allow residents, who have a tree issue requiring the commission’s approval, to move forward with their project if the commission fails to meet for three consecutive meetings or 60 days.

“We think holding it that long is not in the best interest of business,” Barber said, referring to the proposal ordinance that would lower it to 30 days.

Concerns and optimism

Robb, though, is concerned that commissioners are trying to avoid meeting. The commission has rescheduled its August meeting for 4:30 pm Wednesday at Government Plaza.

“They are clearly not wanting to meet,” said Robb, president of the non-profit Friends of Mobile Trees, who was once a TV journalist in Mobile who covered Mobile City Hall. “There is no communication to come up with an explanation as to why. It’s up to the council to look into why they are not meeting.”

Council members, aware of the no-shows, admitted that there are vacancies that need to be filled. Council President CJ Small said he plans to appoint Steve Cain, owner of Cain’s Tree Service, to fill another vacant slot.

Councilman Ben Reynolds said he is planning to meet with Robb to get recommendations on who should serve on the commission. Robb lives in Reynolds’ council district.

“Not everyone wants to serve on a volunteer board,” Reynolds said. “We have maybe 30 to 40 volunteer boards and to put yourself out there to be scrutinized by people and (dealing with) the rigors of being on a board is not attractive.”

Reynolds said he believes the commission will be operational, adding that “it takes people time to get in the swing of things.”

But the lack of quorums is stirring concerns among tree advocates like Robb who, for years, have been disturbed and distrustful of the city’s treatment of its live oak trees.

“Trees are our greatest natural resource with the exception of our people,” Robb said. “If Mobile would embrace what that means for us as a community, it would be transformative.”

He added, “Charleston (South Carolina) is a world-class destination largely because of their live oak trees. Our trees are just as nice, if not better.”

Trees have long been a thorny subject at Government Plaza since Stimpson, a lumber company executive, was elected mayor in 2013.

Four live oaks were felled at the site of the Hilton Garden Inn during its construction near Bienville Square on Friday, July 3, 2015, in downtown Mobile, Ala. (Mike Kittrell/mkittrell@al.com)

The controversies sparked in 2015, when nine live oak trees were destroyed near Bienville Square to make room for a future hotel. Outraged residents took to social media and fired off criticisms, and one woman even chained herself to one of the trees in protest.

The most high-profile snafu happened in 2016, when the mayor’s former chief of staff ordered a giant tree cedar tree to be removed from a city park and used as a prop during a Donald Trump pre-presidential rally.

More recently, the non-profit Government Street Collaborative (GSC) accused the city of broken promises after three oak trees were removed along Broad Street near Government Street as part of a major road construction project in downtown Mobile.

The GSC said that the city, in a 2019 promise, vowed to keep them informed whenever the city needed to tear down an oak tree. That did not happen, according to advocate Bill Boswell, and the move left him and others “pissed off.”

Said Robb, “Mayor Stimpson has done an excellent job financially in running this city. But clearly this city council and mayor have a blind when it comes to trees. They don’t seem to get it.”

Robb, in an email he felt later in the day, said he’s optimistic some positive changes are afoot. He indicated that the city is looking to “substantial increase” to its forestry budget and plans to “hire additional arborists.”

The city currently has only one urban forester, Peter Toler, and tree advocates have long pushed for additional employees to handle the sensitive nature of tree removal cases.

The mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget, which requires City Council approval before September 30, proposes an increase in the Forestry budget from $957,508 in fiscal year 2022 to $2.3 million in the next fiscal year. The city’s fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30.

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