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'Grand' oak or a house? City board picks tree

A landowner comes up with an idea for two structures on two lots, enhancing land values. A city panel prefers the tree.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 17, 2002

John Hernandez came up with what he thought was a solution to a problem. Now the only thing standing in his way is a grand oak.

He owns two vacant lots on the corner of W Orient Street and NBoulevard, one block in from heavily trafficked Martin Luther King Boulevard. He's about to put a 3,000-square-foot commercial building on the corner. Plans have already been approved by the city, and construction should begin within the next few months, he said.

"Who will want to live next to a commercial building?" he asked himself.

The answer was simple. Build a home for his 21-year-old son Jason on the neighboring lot, 705 W. Orient St. Jason can keep an eye on his business after hours, and a single family home would act as a buffer, keeping people away from the rear of the building at night.

The family sought a variance to remove an oak tree, 36 inches in diameter, allowing room to build a 2,200-square-foot, single family home.

Tuesday night the city's Variance Review Board opposed the move with a 4 to 1 vote.

"There are some creative ways to build around the tree," said board member Rebecca Smith. The tree borders a home on the east side of the 60- by 130-foot lot.

The board suggested the family build a narrow, two-story home or cut out a portion of the home around the tree. They could raise the foundation to allow for root growth.

The Hernandez family says that would be too expensive and a 5-foot cutout would steal space from the inside of the home, already less than 45 feet wide. They say they are saving other trees on the lot.

They found support from Sharon Keene, president of the Riverside Heights Neighborhood Association.

"Our neighborhood is eroding along the perimeter," Keene said.

As commercial buildings pop-up at the edge of residential areas, homeowners move and rent out their properties. Then rentals fall into disrepair, she said.

"I hate to lose that tree, but it is a sacrifice we are willing to make," she said, noting that the new construction would help property values.

The lot has stood vacant for more than 10 years. It's bordered in back by a gas station and a commercial building, both facing Martin Luther King Boulevard. To the east is another home.

Variance Review Board member John Weiss agreed with the neighborhood association president.

"Maintaining property values in this case far outweighs saving one 36-inch tree," he said.

He questioned whether the house could even be built around the tree and if it would be cost effective to do so.

David Reilly, who inspects trees for the city, recommended the board deny the variance.

"Preserving the tree may be costly, but what's the price of removing a 100-year-old tree?" he said.

Riley said his department only votes to remove a grand oak if it is breaking the foundation of an existing building or if it is in danger of toppling over.

The department assesses whether a tree is considered "grand" or not using a formula granting points for a tree's height, diameter and canopy. Together they must add up to 175 points. This tree adds up to about 176 points.

"Yes I could go around the tree, but would my home be large enough? Would it be worth it?" Jason Hernandez asked Tuesday night.

The family is unsure whether they'll appeal to City Council. Jay Moore of Chippendale Contractors, the home's builder, says he's unsure how much raising the foundation would cost.

"Once my building goes up no one will want to live there," John Hernandez said, adding the family will probably never be able to sell the property.

He also lives in the neighborhood.

"Now it will be a parking lot by day and full of drunks at night," he said.

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