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Builders find clear path to tree removal

Exceptions to the tree code are given 94 percent of the time in New Tampa, records show.

By MELANIE AVE and MICHAEL SANDLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000


NEW TAMPA -- Lynn McGarvey was outraged to learn recently that a city clerk's error allowed a developer to clear 1,747 trees in New Tampa last year. To the Carrollwood environmentalist, the tree removal was much more than the simple mistake city leaders described.

To her, it was a travesty in one of the city's most environmentally sensitive areas.

But even if the developer had gone through the proper channels, the result likely would have been the same.

In New Tampa, where neighborhoods replace woods almost daily, records show the city grants exceptions to rules aimed at protecting trees 94 percent of the time that developers ask. In the past four years, the city has only denied two of 36 New Tampa requests to remove large tracts of trees or replant fewer trees than required.

Thousands of trees have been cleared for subdivisions in Tampa Palms and West Meadows, apartment complexes like Carrington Park and businesses like Home Depot -- all with the city's blessing.

In New Tampa, one of the fastest-growing areas of Hillsborough County, the pace of tree cutting is intense.

"They are not one bit interested in saving those trees," said McGarvey, co-chair of the local Sierra Club's conservation committee. "Their goal, and I'm sure this comes straight from the top, is to get those developments through."

But Mayor Dick Greco said the exceptions to the tree code are unsurprising given the pace of development in New Tampa. He said the city has been stringent and reasonable in working with developers and requiring them to replant trees and leave park space. He described the New Tampa area as "beautiful."

"I think we are doing a fine job," Greco said. "I realize there are some environmental groups who may have a problem with it . . . but I'm not sure their place in life is to tell everyone what they can do with their property."

Members of the city's Variance Review Board, which approves most tree removal variances, defend those actions, saying they often persuade developers to modify their plans and cut down fewer trees. Still, some of them question the city's permitting process and even wonder if they have legal authority to derail developments to save trees.

Requesting a tree variance is one of the final steps a developer takes before breaking ground. Developers often show up before the Variance Review Board with detailed plans in place and required permits in hand -- everything except a tree variance.

"Here's one little tail wagging the dog," said Bill Holsenback.

Soon after joining the board, Holsenback said, he asked the city attorney's office if the board could stop a project because of excessive tree removal. The answer was murky, he said.

"Being an engineer, I like yes or no," Holsenback said. "Apparently, it does not work that way."

Compounding the issue, variance board members said, is a stark difference between tree removals in the older and newer areas of Tampa. City regulations assess a $10,000 fine for felling a single grand tree, but an illegal clear-cutting could result in a $1,000 fine.

When chain saws threaten sprawling oaks in Hyde Park, residents flood City Hall with concerns. When bulldozers make their way toward hundreds of 25-foot gangly pines in Tampa Palms, there's hardly a whimper.

"In south Tampa, we get 50 people who come out to save one tree," said John Dingfelder, a member of the variance board. "I would urge the people of New Tampa to come out and protect their forests.

"Pretty soon they won't have any."

Tampa enacted a tree ordinance in 1986 amid pressures of growth and development.

Ten years later, the Tree Board was replaced by the Variance Review Board as part of the mayor's effort to streamline the city's permitting process.

The mayor and City Council appoint seven members to the Variance Review Board, which grants exceptions to the tree code as well as setback requirements, sign restrictions and other development regulations.

The city's existing tree ordinance is supposed to ". . . protect trees, wetlands and natural resources." It requires developers to seek an exception from the Variance Review Board if they want to cut more than 50 percent of protected trees on a non-wooded site, or on a wooded lot, more than 50 percent for a home, 60 percent for apartments and 75 percent for a business.

The tree code also requires them to either replace some of the trees they destroy by planting new ones or pay into a tree trust fund, an untapped pot of money which now totals $417,379.

Developers must prove "practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships" would result if the trees are not removed.

Often in New Tampa, the hardship cited is that the trees are in the middle of property or that the trees would die anyway because of the fill dirt necessary to raise building elevations to meet flood-prevention rules.

"Sometimes you can adjust plans to accommodate trees and sometimes you can't," said David Smith, a land-use consultant who has worked for developers in New Tampa.

Another New Tampa tree removal request comes up for decision at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. The Hogan Group wants to remove 444 trees from the northwest corner of Bruce B. Downs and Tampa Palms boulevards to make way for a restaurant area called The Pointe at Tampa Palms.

Bigger projects, like the 645-acre Grand Hampton golf community planned just south of the Pasco County line, will involve requests to take out thousands of trees.

Approval, however, is not always guaranteed. Last year, Tampa Palms Partners wanted a tree variance for the Retreat, a 298-unit apartment complex near New Tampa's post office last year. The review board denied it twice, eventually forcing the developer to reduce the number of trees removed and to replant trees, something developers prefer not to do because of costs.

In 1998, the developer of Home Depot in New Tampa wanted to replace fewer trees than required. The Variance Review Board offered some relief, but denied the rest. The developer appealed to City Council, which agreed to the request, saving the developer $11,000.

City Council members said they must balance the demands of growth with preserving natural resources. Sometimes that's difficult.

Regulations require developers to raise the elevation of much of New Tampa, which lies in a creek basin. But sometimes the pines die.

"You almost have competing regulations," said Bob Buckhorn, who helped draft the city's original tree code.

Robert Evans, president of Lochmere Development Corp., the original developer of the home- and apartment-filled Richmond Place, called the situation a Catch-22.

"It's not as easy as it seems," he said. "When they say, "Don't cut the trees,' they're saying, "Don't use your land.' "

Without a tree variance, some developments wouldn't be economically feasible, said Rob Ahrens, president of Lennar Homes' Central/West Florida Land Division.

Lennar was the developer that last year got the permit to cut 1,747 trees -- 94 percent of the total -- on 73 acres for the Ashington Reserve subdivision, without getting the proper variance first. The company has agreed to replant 2,435 trees to make up for the loss.

Ahrens said so much of the land already had been preserved as wetlands that little was left for streets and houses.

Until the mistake with the tree-cutting permit, Ahrens said, the system was working. The board reviewed variance requests on a case-by-case basis and developers tweaked plans to accommodate city planners.

He said no one wants to clear-cut.

"We try to save trees. We realize the benefit of having trees," Ahrens said. "It sells a home. It sells a community."

The city is reviewing its tree ordinance, mainly to protect Tampa's oldest and largest trees, not whole forests.

Greco ordered the review in June after the controversial severe trimming of a huge oak on Chapin Avenue that City Council members had voted to save. The neighborhood was appalled. Some people even cried.

City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who is leading the review committee, said New Tampa's tree situation will be considered, though she's not sure when.

Buckhorn said one possible change under discussion is to require developers to plant bigger trees -- 4 inches in diameter instead of 2 inches -- to compensate for those removed.

To Senger, a New Tampa resident for five years, that's not enough. "Four inches is not very big," he said.

Senger believes developers could take more time in designing projects around trees, like Magdalene Reserve off Fletcher Avenue in Carrollwood, where the homes sit in a near forest-like setting.

The city also could tighten its restrictions, stick to its ordinance and protect fragile environments like New Tampa, environmentalists say.

"It's a very sensitive area," said Senger, a civil engineer. "We have endangered species out here and nobody seems to care. What they're doing is taking the cheapest solution to make the fastest dollar and moving on to the next project."

- Times staff writer Susan Thurston and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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