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County softens proposal on oaks

Planners side with builders on a diameter threshold of 40 inches but want tougher rules for removing grand oaks.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002


TAMPA -- Under pressure from local builders, Hillsborough County is abandoning a proposal that would have set a more rigorous standard for protecting grand oak trees.

The county's Department of Planning and Growth Management had sought to protect oaks with diameters of 30 inches or greater.

Following discussions with the Builders Association of Greater Tampa, the department has decided to ask the County Commission to set the minimum threshold at 40 inches, the figure the builders lobbied for.

Even healthy oaks that big or bigger would not be guaranteed survival.

But if changes are approved, the new ordinance would force landowners to get permission from a county hearing officer to remove grand oaks, said John Schrecengost of the Department of Planning and Growth Management. Currently, the county can try to persuade developers to submit site plans that save as many trees as possible, but staffers have little real power to prevent their removal.

The builders association argued that the current ordinance works fine. It requires surveys of trees with diameters greater than 5 inches but does not give special protection to oaks.

The proposed amendments would increase costs, the builders said, because the location of trees directly affects site plans and building expenses.

"We still don't see the need for this particular ordinance," said Biff Craine, a Tampa lawyer who is chairman of governmental affairs for the builders association.

The proposals were sparked by Commissioner Jan Platt, who complained last year about the ongoing loss of oak trees.

"The more trees we can save the better," she said. "It's really to the developers' benefit. They add value to the land."

In drafting the changes, Schrecengost said, the county did not cave in to development interests. After viewing data from Tampa, which showed trees protected under the city's grand oak ordinance average 39 inches in diameter, "We accepted the diameter that the builders association proposed," he said.

The builders did not get everything they wanted, according to Schrecengost.

They fought unsuccessfully the proposal requiring landowners to go before a county hearing officer to remove healthy grand oaks. (A hearing would not be required for less robust oaks.)

And the builders lost on another issue. The changes propose that landowners replace a healthy grand oak with one of equal size.

Craine contends the new rules would not protect more oaks; Schrecengost disagrees.

"It's going to create a difference in the design (of projects)," he said.

He cited the case of a proposed addition to the Eagles subdivision in Keystone for which some oaks would be cut down. Under the new ordinance, Schrecengost said, the developer probably would have had to redesign the project around some of the healthier, larger oaks.

The proposed ordinance goes to the planning commission on May 13 and then to the County Commission for public hearings on June 8 and July 25.

-- Josh Zimmer can be reached at (813) 269-5314.

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