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Old tree, ethics tumble

By PATTY RYAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003


THE BULLDOZER came first thing Monday, while some of us were sleeping. By 10 a.m., the house was flattened. The tree had already been killed.

In my neighborhood, Palma Ceia, people feel betrayed these days.

Maybe you've heard the story, reported in Saturday's Times:

HENRY AND LISA CLARK, who lived at 3410 Barcelona St., had been negotiating since at least late summer to sell their home to Devonshire Properties, which wants to build four townhomes on the double lot.

But a grand laurel oak tree stood defiantly in the way.

On Nov. 14, Clark sent legal notices to neighbors, giving them two weeks to protest the couple's plan to cut down the oak. He didn't bring up the prospective buyer.

INSTEAD, HE WAILED of roots threatening the foundation. He spoke of cracks in walls.

And -- here's the best part -- he thanked neighbors for their understanding, before signing the note "Hal."

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

HE NEGLECTED to mention the biggest hazard the home faced: an approaching bulldozer.

No one fought for the tree.

The land sold, for an amount not yet reflected in public records.

IT PAINS ME to tell the Clarks' story without providing their words of explanation, but frankly, they aren't returning phone calls these days. Neither is Devonshire owner Neil Layton.

I suppose they hope for our understanding.

Linda Clark, in a brief interview, began crying when Times reporter Ron Matus asked her about the tree.

"The developers wanted to do what they wanted to do," she said.

OTHERS have more to say.

John Dingfelder, vice president of the Palma Ceia Neighborhood Association, fired off a letter to city attorney James Palermo, asking if criminal or civil penalties could apply.

Could the permit be revoked, he wondered, in light of "fraudulent misrepresentations"?

If so, the killing of grand oaks is usually followed by a $15,000 fine.

The City Council has asked Palermo to look into the matter.

"There's the letter of the law and the spirit of the law," City Council member Linda Saul-Sena said Wednesday.

"And it appears that they might have met the letter but certainly not the spirit."

Have a developer and a homeowner created a blueprint for evasion of Tampa's tree ordinance?

A frightening thought.

ON A LIGHTER NOTE:

I have been put in my place by the wife of a Krewe of Sant'Yago member.

Teresa Armas has fine words for St. Petersburg Times society coverage but frowns on my partying portrayal of Gasparilla pirates last week.

I'll admit: Pirates are an awfully fun target. For a kinder view of them, check out an excerpt from Mrs. Armas' letter, Jab at pirates in poor taste.

- Staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Tampa's Kennedy Boulevard was once called Grand Central. Now Grand Central is a weekly City Times column. Writer Patty Ryan can be reached at 226-3382 or pryan@sptimes.com .

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