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Mayor joins outcry over trimmed oak

Dick Greco orders an investigation of the trimming after City Council forbade its removal.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


TAMPA -- Mayor Dick Greco, City Council member Rose Ferlita and angry neighbors demanded Friday to know how the owners of a centuries-old oak tree near Bayshore Boulevard managed to have 60 percent of it trimmed with the city's blessing.

"I want to know why and how and what," said Greco, who ordered an investigation and went to inspect the tree Friday. "I want to see if we need to make changes in the present law. An oak that size you can't grow in a couple lifetimes. It's a rare and precious thing."

Ferlita called the tree cutting an affront to the council.

"They go and cut 60 percent, making it likely the tree's going to die," she said. "They just slapped it in the face of the council."

The owners, Gary and Molly Smith, did not return telephone calls Friday.

Sam Queirolo, an attorney for the couple, said his clients were not happy with a City Council decision Thursday morning prohibiting them from cutting down the tree and worried that two diseased limbs could fall and hurt someone.

"The Smiths are not happy about the recent course of events," Queirolo said. "I don't think there are any winners here."

Thursday was the flashpoint of a months-long battle over a tree that neighbors say existed before the 1823 military outpost that became Tampa. Two years ago, the Smiths bought the lot at 3012 W Chapin Ave. for $189,200 based on assurances from city officials they could remove the tree, which they said was diseased.

An architect designed a $800,000, 5,000-square-foot home that needed space taken up by the tree. The city issued a removal permit Feb. 1 that mistakenly stated the tree was dead. That enraged many Bayshore Beautiful residents who considered the oak, with a circumference of nearly 20 feet and an 86-foot canopy, an old friend and neighbor.

A city forester who inspected the tree estimated it would live 50 years or longer. While some limbs should be removed, he wrote, the major ones appeared healthy. City officials revoked the removal permit and said the Smiths needed a variance to cut down the tree. The Variance Review Board rejected their application last month. City Council members unanimously upheld that decision Thursday morning.

Nearly two dozens neighbors cheered the decision. But unknown to them, a tree service hired by the Smiths went to the city's construction service center about 2 p.m. and applied for a permit to trim two "decayed/unhealthy limbs."

David Jennings, the residential development coordinator, called his boss, Steve LaBrake, director of the city's business and community services department. LaBrake gave the okay, and Jennings dispatched an inspector to give the tree one last look.

Just before 5 p.m., about 25 workers from Mid Florida Tree Service pulled up to the site, neighbors said.

LaBrake said his staff was convinced by reports from an arborist hired by the Smiths and the city's forester that diseased branches had to be removed. Jennings told council members Thursday that would involve removing 60 percent of the tree. While members could block the oak's removal, LaBrake said, they had no say over the trimming.

Mid Florida Tree Service owner Byron Jones said he was deluged with phone calls Friday from angry residents accusing him of cutting down a healthy, grand tree.

"In my opinion, the whole tree was going to die," Jones said.

Greco said he was considering hiring an independent arborist to conduct what he called a tree autopsy. "Even if the right thing was done, the timing was certainly horrible," he said. "We'll learn from this."

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