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Aging oak trees threaten Tampa neighborhoods

Those great leafy oak canopies that help turn neighbors into friends can come with an expiration date, a fact that often takes people by unhappy surprise. It's a lesson being learned throughout Town 'N Country, home to many aging laurel oaks. Some residents are discovering they'll have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to remove the trees, or risk having them crush their homes -- or worse. "We didn't know until branches started falling," says Cathy Okamoto, who has had seven removed in the past five years. It cost $800 to take out the last one. And that doesn't include grinding down the stump.
"We had tree cutters come in to prune them" over the years, she says. "None of them told us they were laurel oaks and had a life span. After the branches started falling, we had an arborist come out and he told us the problem. "I learned the hard way." In Town 'N Country, where the first homes were built 50 years ago, many laurel oaks planted by the developers have reached maturity. Natives that builders worked around may be downright elderly. The trees have helped create tight-knit little communities, where neighbors know one another because they spend a lot of time outside. On Hiawatha Street, where Cathy lives, block parties and garage sales are tradition. "People linger," Cathy says. "Neighbors sit out at night." Some of the trees in Town 'N Country are live oaks, sturdy old hardwoods that live 250 years or more, says Rob Northrop, Hillsborough County's urban forester. He doesn't worry about those. But many others are laurel oaks, which mature at 40 to 50 years. They're old and many are diseased and stressed, making them frail and dangerous giants. When storms blow through, they can come crashing down. It's easy to spot trees that may be in trouble: Shallow root systems covered by pavement - sidewalks and streets -- indicate roots that can't breathe, which stresses the tree. Laurels are also poor healers and many are pocked with half-closed wounds from pruning cuts. The openings invite fungus, which rots the inside of the tree. "There are some serious problems here," Northrop told a group of Town 'N Country residents recently during a special presentation arranged by the community's garden club and civic association. "A lot of these trees, if they're not a problem now, they will be in the next few years." Homeowners shouldn't rush to chop down their laurel oaks, Northrop says. Instead, he suggests a simple evaluation to determine whether the tree is a potential hazard. If it appears it could be dangerous and the owners want it removed, they should call a licensed, insured tree removal service. The typical cost to remove a large laurel oak is $3,000 to $5,000, says Kathy Beck, natural resources coordinator for Tampa's parks department. If pruning may help, call a certified arborist. Do not hire freelance tree-trimmers soliciting jobs, Northrop warns. They can make the situation worse. His advice, he notes, is a word to the wise well beyond Town 'N Country. "There's a good many communities in the Tampa Bay area in the same situation," he says. "Forty years ago, there was a lot of development going on. Laurel oaks are great trees - for about 40 years."

Getaway Editor Penny Carnathan can be reached at (813) 259-7612.

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