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With home expansion plans in place, oak tree is now missing

Neighbors are upset at the loss of a large live oak tree, chopped down without a permit. But it is likely the owners' building plans will not be affected.

By TIM GRANT

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2000


CARROLLWOOD -- A towering live oak tree used to provide a natural canopy over Don and Nancy Conwell's home off Smitter Road. But when they returned from a trip to Europe last week all they saw was blue sky where the tree's moss-draped limbs used to be.

While the Conwells were gone, the new owners of the house at 14805 Grimsby Place cut down the grandfather oak to make room for more living space.

According to county building officials, Corey and Sandy Brower had no permit to remove the tree before they chopped it down. And the couple submitted a building site plan that did not indicate the tree was ever there.

"The plan they submitted to me had no tree on it, so I had no idea there was a tree," said Nora Hall, a zoning technician in the building department's Northwest satellite office.

The Browers could not be reached for comment. No one has moved into the house. Although records show the Browers also own another house in the same subdivision on Westmoreland Road, neighbors say no one is living at that address either.

Jim Paleveda, manager of the Northwest satellite office, said plans for the Browers' two-story, 8,100-square-foot addition were submitted June 23 and approved July 21. The county was not aware of the tree until the Conwells complained this week.

Now county environmental inspectors are trying to determine how large the tree might have been. Inspector Richard Van Epps said he thinks the tree was at least 3 feet in diameter. If the Browers receive the maximum penalty of $50 per diameter inch, their fine could be about $1,800.

"Any fine they get is like a drop in the bucket for them," Don Conwell said. "They are going to get away with cutting down a tree, paying a little fine and getting to put up a project they otherwise wouldn't have been allowed to build.

"My question is are they going to get away with it? Is the county going to revoke their plans because they didn't give complete and accurate information?"

County rules require approval for cutting down native trees on residential property that measure 12 inches or more in diameter.

Unless the Browers could have convinced the county that the oak tree was causing some hardship, county rules would most likely not have allowed them to cut it down had they filed the appropriate application.

Even though it was cut down without approval, the Browers will still most likely be allowed to build. But they will face some penalties, said Christa Hull, a county environmental scientist with Planning and Growth Management.

"The tree is gone. There's nothing we can do about that," Hull said "We can't stop someone from building on their own property just because a tree used to be there. Now we are working on restoration of the tree and replacing its value."

Hull said the Browers will be required to use the money they are fined to replant trees at that site or another site in the county where trees are needed. They could also opt to donate the fine money to the county Restoration Fund.

About $300,000 has been collected in the Restoration Fund since it was created in 1992 by a special provision in the existing tree ordinance, said John Schrecengost, an environmental manager at Planning and Growth Management.

Schrecengost said the money has been collected through donations or penalities imposed by the code enforcement board. The fund has paid for community projects such as landscaping on the Upper Tampa Bay Trail and restoring natural plant systems on county properties.

To reach Tim Grant call 226-3471, or e-mail him at grant@sptimes.com.

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