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Felling of oak raises protest

Convinced that the big tree must come down to protect a house, neighbors later feel tricked: Townhomes are to go up.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 1, 2003

TAMPA -- As much as they love trees, neighbors along Barcelona Street didn't object when they heard Lisa and Henry Clark wanted to cut down a grand laurel oak.

Permit applications indicated the tree, about 4 feet in diameter at its base, was damaging the couple's Palma Ceia home.

"Nobody protested because we thought, 'Oh, they're preserving the house,' " said Lori Jennis, who lives a few doors down.

But within weeks of the tree's removal in December, the Clarks sold the property to a developer who plans to replace the house with four townhomes -- a project that might have been thwarted by the presence of a large tree.

The developer, Devonshire Properties, has been negotiating with the Clarks for at least five months, a city official said.

Sympathy has turned to outrage.

Neighbors say the Clarks hoodwinked the city and exposed a loophole in city tree laws.

"That's a sneaky, rotten way" to push through new homes, said City Council member Linda Saul-Sena.

More than 50 residents attended a meeting earlier this week to vent about the turn of events. Council members Saul-Sena and Rose Ferlita said Friday they will ask the city attorney next week to see if the tree ordinance can be tweaked to prevent a reoccurrence.

Ferlita was skeptical.

"I don't know how we can safeguard against something like that," she said. "It's just unfortunate."

The house is a few blocks north of Bay to Bay Boulevard, between Himes Avenue and MacDill Avenue.

Lisa Clark spoke only briefly with the Times, and her husband could not be reached for comment.

She began crying when a reporter asked her about the tree.

"I didn't do it," she said. "The developers wanted to do what they wanted to do."

She declined further comment.

In a brief interview, Devonshire owner Neil Layton said he and the Clarks closed on the property two weeks ago. He asked a reporter to call back later, then did not return messages left on his cellular and office telephones.

The Clarks bought the home in 1999 for $230,000, records show.

A local tree service applied for a permit to remove the tree on Nov. 1. The reason given on the application: "Damaging house."

City forester David Reilly inspected the tree and recommended removal. It stood less than 2 feet from the residence.

Roots were pushing up support piers between the bottom of the home's wood frame and the ground.

The Clarks sent a letter to neighboring property owners, explaining they intended to take down the tree.

"It is with serious regret that we have taken this action, but we believe that we must do so to avoid the hazards posed by the tree to our home and family," Hal Clark wrote.

The permit was granted Nov. 26.

No record of a property exchange between the Clarks and Devonshire is on file yet at the County Clerk's Office.

But Devonshire officials told the city in early January that they want to build four townhomes on the land, which is zoned for multifamily residential use. They were expected to get a demolition permit Friday.

The Clarks and Devonshire representative Fritz Hofmeister met on the site in August or September, recalled Dave Jennings, the city's residential development coordinator, who joined them that day.

Devonshire was in negotiations with the Clarks, Jennings said. Hofmeister was afraid another tree on the site -- not the laurel oak -- might limit construction to three units instead of four.

"I said, 'That's a grand tree. You've got issues'," Jennings recalled.

Then Lisa Clark brought up the laurel oak and invited Jennings inside to see her sloped floor.

The Clarks never mentioned moving until just days before they left in early January, neighbors said.

Survey flags went up months ago. For sale signs never did.

"Everything was so secretive," said neighbor Dorothy Collins.

She and others worry about more than the tree.

Townhomes have already changed the face of their neighborhood.

They fear additional ones will bring more traffic, more stormwater and more renters into an area dominated by old bungalows and red brick streets.

In the wake of the tree cutting, they are studying the possibility of changing the neighborhood zoning from multifamily to single family, or having it designated as a historic district where townhomes would be unwelcome.

John Dingfelder, a member of the city's Variance Review Board, said Devonshire would have been out of luck had the developer asked to remove the laurel oak after buying the Barcelona Street property.

Dingfelder, also vice president of the Palma Ceia Neighborhood Association, said the board would have worked with the developer on other tradeoffs, such as allowing buildings closer to the tree, the road or neighboring properties.

But killing the tree to squeeze in another townhome?

"Probably not," he said.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or .

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