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Stunned neighbors see massive oak trimmed

By ANGELA MOORE and STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


TAMPA -- Neighbors who rallied to save a centuries-old oak in South Tampa celebrated Thursday morning after the City Council unanimously upheld a decision barring the owners from cutting it down.

Esther Aiken has lived across the street from the W Chapin Avenue grand oak tree for 31 years. She used to stand under its shade in the summer and remembers the only time in her life it was ever coated in snow. She attended every board meeting and neighborhood rally to save the tree and finally sat down to dinner Thursday evening, content.

Then she heard the chain saws.

The Aikens and their neighbors ran out to see a crew from Mid Florida Tree Service cut into the largest part of the tree, a huge branch jutting from the trunk just 6 feet from the ground.

The council said the tree could not be removed, but the owners got a city permit to have it "trimmed."

By the time the chain saws were silent, about one-third of the ancient tree remained. An off-duty Tampa police officer guarded the lot near Bayshore Boulevard and assured irate neighbors that everything they were watching was legal. Then he told them to kindly move across the street.

The neighborhood gathered on the opposite sidewalk, cameras in hand. Some cried, some fumed. Some bemoaned the "dirty politics" of city government, some promised that this wasn't over.

"If it takes me the rest of my life, this is not going to happen again," Ann Johnson said as she paced furiously among her neighbors. "They are not going to get away with this . . . How on earth can they do this? We just had the vote this morning."

Some of the residents heckled the Mid Florida Tree Service workers.

"They ask me questions about what right I have to do this, but I'm just doing my job," said company's owner Byron Jones. "I was hired to trim the tree down and I have a permit to do that."

After awhile, most residents directed their anger at one source: the owners of the 75- by 100-foot lot, who were nowhere to be found.

Gary and Molly Smith bought the property two years ago, and their architect designed an $800,000 5,000-square-foot house that will be twice as big as the surrounding houses. The huge tree, whose canopy stretches about 100 feet, took up too much space for the massive house to be built.

Jerry Upcavage, an arborist the couple hired, found large rotted areas and cavities in the trunk and weight-bearing limbs, said Jim Shimberg, the Smiths' attorney. The tree is so diseased that Upcavage called it a hazard to human life, Shimberg said.

Because of its age and size, the oak was protected by the city's grand tree ordinance, but a city building official assured the Smiths they could remove the tree. Then the city's urban forester, Steve Graham, determined the oak could live another 50 years or more, and city officials decided the Smiths needed a variance to cut it down.

The Variance Review Board heard statements that the Smiths never considered alternative designs for the house that could save the tree. In May, Upcavage admitted to variance review board members that the tree could live another 50 years. The variance was denied.

The City Council denied the Smiths' appeal Thursday.

Technically, the grand oak still stands at 3012 W Chapin Ave. But Jones said it might as well be gone.

"With that much of it gone," he said, "I don't reckon what's left will last much longer."

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