Beth Connor, a longtime neighborhood environmental advocate, is alarmed at what she views as the destruction of the city’s trees in the name of development.
She points to at least three properties that have been scraped of trees in recent months, the latest across from Lakewood Elementary School. The city is imposing fines and requiring new tree plantings, but Connor argues that mature trees have already been lost.
"We have some very unscrupulous tree companies, because they know what the law is, but they break it anyway,’’ said Connor, a member of the St. Petersburg Sustainability Council. "A three-man work crew can do so much damage in three to six hours and we don’t have anyone to call when this happens.
"We need a tree hotline. We need an environmental hotline. You call codes … they give you the phone number for the codes person in your area and you get a recording and they will try to get back to you within 24 hours, and by that time, the trees are gone."
Others also are concerned.
"We consider the trees to be one of our character-defining characteristics," said Robin Reed, chairwoman of the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association’s planning and preservation committee.
The neighborhood is worried about the effect developers are having on its trees.
"Sometimes, obviously, trees are in the middle of a site and … we realize that those trees have to go," Reed said. "But sometimes, there are also trees that we feel that the developer should give some consideration to leaving on the site."
There’s concern about the future of the neighborhood’s laurel oaks.
"If they are not in perfect condition, then the city says they can go. They’re basically giving permission to take down laurel oaks, because they think they’re coming to the end of their life," Reed said. "We believe that with a little TLC, or trimming, they could last another 10, 15 years or so."
The neighborhood, which is protective of the tree canopies that shade its historic brick streets, enlisted volunteers to count parkway trees — growing between sidewalks and streets. They number 2,820 in the area of about 2,300 homes.
A 2-year-old neighborhood program gives a tree to any Old Northeast resident who wants to plant one in the parkway and promises to care for it. Close to two dozen trees, including live oaks and elms, have been planted.
"We’ve upped our budget this year," Reed said.
Connor sat on Mayor Rick Kriseman’s tree committee that worked to update the city’s regulations in 2015, including adding previously non-existent protections to treasured icons, like the kapok tree on the south lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Permits are required to remove "grand," "protected" and "signature" trees, said Elizabeth Abernethy, the city’s zoning official. Protected trees are defined as shade trees 4 inches in diameter or larger, along with understory (they don’t grow as tall) trees 8 inches or larger in diameter at breast height. Grand trees, 30 inches in diameter or larger, include live oaks.
Signature trees, the newest category, are certain non-native trees and "mean something special in our community," Abernethy said. They include certain sizes of banyan and kapok trees, jacarandas, known for their purple blooms in spring, and royal poinciana trees.
Abernethy said city regulations allow the removal of trees in declining condition if they are causing damage to a structure, or conflict with development on a property, such as a pool.
She said violators can face fines of $500 per tree. In addition, residential property owners can be charged an after-the-fact permit fee of up to $500 a tree, with commercial owners paying up to double that amount. Abernethy said the after-the-fact fee is based on the size of the trees that have been removed. The city also has the option to require mitigation through replanting, she said.
A Pinellas Park company, Q.S. Investments, is facing an after-the-fact permit fee of $5,500 for removing 24 pine trees from its Plaza Comercio Drive NE property. It must replant 66 2-inch trees — half of them slash pines — and add 38 2-inch trees for its multi-family project.
Quynh Tran, who, according to state corporation records, is the president of the firm that owns the Plaza Comercio Drive NE property, will also have to pay $1,040 for an after-the-fact permit and replant 12 trees at the residential property he owns at 7171 Dr. Martin Luther King St. Jr. S.
Connor said the fines are "a pittance for what was destroyed."
"We can’t require more, unless we change the code, which is under consideration," Abernethy said.
A more recent clearing at 4142 Sixth St. S has also upset Connor, who lives in Pinellas Point. The city has imposed an after-the-fact permit charge of $7,800 and ordered the owner, Palmetto Capital Group St. Petersburg, whose principal address listed in state records is Thomasville, Ga., to plant 29 2-inch, or 15 4-inch trees.
A Dollar General has been planned for the site, but a sign this week indicates that it’s for sale. Connor, who said she is against another "bottom of the barrel, low-end retail" store in the neighborhood, is upset that a developer might have needlessly taken out its trees.
Abernethy acknowledged that the city doesn’t catch all unlawful removals.
"We don’t know everything that goes on out there, but those that get reported — it’s something that happens a few times a year — that, we’re dealing with," she said.
"That’s the rub. It’s only the eyes of those who are looking," Connor said.
"They need more staff. Those people are doing the best they can. The staff in development review services, they are like swans paddling frantically under the water, while trying to keep things smooth on top."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.