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Ancient oak must be spared, says board


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2000

TAMPA -- Before Chapin Avenue existed, before Tampa was a city, even before the area was made a military outpost in 1823, the live oak tree at what is now 3012 W Chapin Ave. grew.

By the time Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders camped in the area at the turn of the century, the grand oak tree shaded the troops. David Gaskins remembers playing under the tree 40 years ago when he was 8 years old, and digging up a rusty revolver and other things the troops left behind.

That was another time.

Today, the lot belongs to Gary and Molly Smith, who paid $189,200 for it two years ago. Their architect, Ron Martinez, has already designed an $800,000 home for the property with more than 5,000 square feet of living space. To fit, the tree, with a circumference of almost 20 feet and a canopy that stretches over 100 feet, has to go.

Tuesday night, the city's Variance Review Board sent the Smiths, their architect and their attorneys back to the planning table. The tree, protected by a city ordinance that qualifies trees of a certain height and girth as "grand trees," must not be removed, the board said.

Years ago before they bought the lot, the Smiths checked with the city to make sure they would be able to remove the tree. They were assured by the city's residential development coordinator, David Jennings, that the tree could go since it appeared diseased anyway.

After neighbors complained in January, city forester Steve Graham inspected the tree and declared it healthy. The city told the Smiths they would have to ask for a variance in the law.

Tuesday night, the Smith's attorneys, from Holland and Knight, and their paid arborist, Jerry Upcavage, tried to convince the board that the tree is diseased and should be removed.

"The size of the tree and the weight of the tree pose a danger to a house located anywhere on the property if branches or the entire tree falls," said attorney Jim Shimberg. "We have a lot of people here tonight, all legitimately concerned about the tree. We're not here tonight saying the tree is dead, we're not saying it has less than five years to live. What we're saying is the specific circumstances of this case warrant the removal of this tree."

The city ordinance allows trees that will die in five years to be cut down. However, Upcavage, the Smith's paid arborist, agreed that the tree may have as many 50 years of life left.

Jenna Venero, the Chapin Avenue resident who started the fight to save the tree, said the tree's potential is what convinced the board it must stay.

"The board felt they hadn't shown how the tree would be a hardship, especially after Steve Graham, the city forester, said it could live for more than 50 years," Venero said. "This is a grand oak. It's truly rare and unusual for a tree to ever get to that point. If the city's ordinance to protect these trees is not upheld, it's no good."

The Smiths will have a chance to appeal the board's decision to the Tampa City Council, which has the final say.

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