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Large oak trees paying a price for drainage project

VALRICO — A long-awaited flooding fix for homeowners in the Stearns Road neighborhood got under way in May, but not everyone was celebrating.

Fred Fox, who moved to a shady parcel on Stearns Road about a decade ago, watched last week as a tree service crew whacked away at a towering oak measuring nearly 4 feet in diameter. A truck bearing severed tree trunks rumbled by on its way to a dumping ground at the end of Little Stearns Road.

"That's the reason we moved here," Fox said, pointing to trees that have taken the better part of a century to brush the sky.

A retired news photographer, Fox has a collection of photographs of the many barred owls that nest in trees behind his house and, he believes, elsewhere in the neighborhood. He said the trees also provide valuable habitat for hawks, foxes and other wildlife.

Not all neighbors rued the tree loss, however. Several said better drainage is more important than tree preservation.

"If they don't do something, eventually one day we'll flood out," said Catherine Rouse, who has lived on Stearns Road since 1976. "I guess they have to do what they have to do."

The tree removal is part of a $2.5 million Hillsborough County drainage project intended to address highly publicized flooding problems on Hillgrove Road, which connects Stearns Road to Bloomingdale Avenue. Homeowners there and on Stearns Road complained of saturated yards that caused prolonged septic tank failures after two shopping centers were built on each side of Lithia-Pinecrest Road, just south of Bloomingdale Avenue, in 2003.

The drainage project, scheduled for completion by next spring, includes digging out a wooded lot north of Stearns Road and east of Hillgrove Road to create a pond to collect stormwater runoff. Water from that pond will be piped east along Stearns Road to Little Stearns Road, a narrow dirt road that leads to an 11-acre, grassy parcel that once held a series of fish ponds.

Plans call for the county to create two stormwater ponds on the old fish farm, said county spokesman Steve Valdez. Workers also will widen Little Stearns Road to 30 feet and pave it to allow trucks to access the drainage site.

Fox and other neighbors said county officials had promised to preserve trees when they first broached the project years ago.

Valdez said officials agreed to preserve as many roadside trees as possible, and the county has lived up to that promise. He said there was no agreement about tree preservation on the parcels where ponds will be built. He said an arborist surveyed the construction areas and marked trees to be cut.

"We try to preserve every tree, every place, that we can," Valdez said. "But there are instances where you have to weigh the benefits of the project and the trees. . . . It's either the trees or the project."

Neighbors on Stearns Road said yards often flood after heavy rains.

George Cowles, who has lived on the road for 10 years, said four trees the work crew chopped down in the right of way in front of his house were toppling into a roadside ditch because of erosion. He said he had planned to apply for permits to have them removed.

"They saved me some money," he said.

Other neighbors said beetle infestation and a cycle of drought and flooding had thinned the wooded areas in recent years.

Carl Bowers, who has lived on Little Stearns Road for 26 years, said he welcomes the project because his back yard often floods and he hopes the new ponds will prevent that. Little Stearns Road turns into a little river in heavy rains, he said.

Like Fox, however, he mourns the loss of trees, especially the huge oak that sat on his property line near the intersection of Stearns and Little Stearns roads. He said work crews didn't discuss tree removal before starting the project.

"They took down a big, beautiful oak tree," Bowers said. "They said it was an unhealthy tree. It looked as healthy as any out here."

Doris Meyer, who has lived on Little Stearns Road for 30 years, said the forest that rimmed the old fish farm was mostly scraggly oaks that blocked light from her home.

"We're glad to see some of the trees go," Meyer said. "What they (workers) have done is amazing. It's beautiful, and it's open."

She said the project will benefit the neighborhood and help it retain a quiet, rural feel.

"We didn't want to see a subdivision back there," Meyer said.

Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Large oak trees paying a price for drainage project 06/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 2, 2011 5:30am]

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