Residents angered by plans to remove scores of trees in the U.S. 41 median through Lutz have scored a partial victory.
About 120 people turned out at a recent meeting scheduled after residents irate about the planned tree removal bombarded Hillsborough County officials and the Florida Department of Transportation with telephone calls and email.
Of the dozen-plus people who spoke at the Lutz Community Center meeting, many were most upset about not being notified of the tree-removal plan.
"We goofed because we didn't get to you in advance to have this conversation way before trees were marked," Deputy County Administrator Lucia Garsys conceded to the standing-room-only crowd. "For that, I apologize. It is really not the way we want to conduct business."
A partnership among the county, state transportation officials and residents could save the trees, Garsys said. "I'm going to ask you today to give us some time, because these trees don't have to come down tomorrow; these trees don't need to go down next week. There are maybe some alternatives for us to look at."
The issue erupted earlier this month when residents noticed crape myrtles and other median trees spray-painted with an "X" or tagged with ribbons. Inquiries revealed the X-marked trees would be removed by the county Jan. 14th.
Slated for removal were 60 crepe myrtles, some oaks and a dozen shrubs in the seven-mile stretch from the Pasco County line to the apex of Nebraska and Florida avenues. Hillsborough officials said the county cannot afford to maintain the landscaping, and removing all but about 20 of the oaks is needed for the state to accept responsibility for the federal highway medians.
The trees were planted in 1998 after the state widened the highway. When money became tight, the county found a private landscaping firm that maintained the median free for five years - until recently.
Jim Moulton, the state transportation department's district director, told residents at the Jan. 24 meeting his agency's budget covers mowing, but not "hand work" for plantings. "The Department of Transportation does not maintain land in our right way; that is not our responsibility," it is relegated to city or county governments, he said.
Moulton also cited a problem with allowing residents or civic groups to maintain median plantings. "There's major safety issues," he said. "We can't have teenagers, young people or even adults that do not have appropriate safety training, safety equipment, going in and out of traffic."
Several speakers at the 90-minute meeting refuted assertions the trees are "dead and dying" and require extensive maintenance.
"Those crape myrtles are not at the end of their lifespan. They're in fine shape; they bloom and they're beautiful when they do," said Clay Colson, a Citizens for Sanity leader. Additionally, the trees do not block motorists' views, he said. "The trees are in the air, they're not in anyone's line of sight."
Mary Daneilewicz-Bryson, a certified arborist and Lutz Citizens Coalition member, said the crape myrtles are doing well. The species usually lives 25 to 50 years, she said.
Among those in attendance was State Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, called to the front of the room near the meeting's end to address the vocal crowd. "I'm hearing the county saying, 'Let's make it work,'" he said, suggesting residents not pressure the county to immediately schedule a follow-up meeting to present alternatives.
"I wouldn't ask them for a deadline to, say, come back with your solution next week. Legg said he would tell the county, "As long as you're maintaining (the median), take your time; come back to us when we can come to an agreement."
Garsys said questions that went unanswered at the meeting will be transcribed and answered in a newsletter or on the county's website.
"We're going to get that up as soon as we can," said county spokesman Willie Puz. "We heard you and we're going to do what we can to try to make everyone as happy as we can."