LUTZ — Residents fighting the removal of trees from medians on U.S. 41 got an apology from county officials last week, and the trees got a reprieve.
County officials who met with residents Thursday night conceded they were too hasty and there was a lack of communication about a plan to remove dead or diseased trees in an area from the Apex shopping center to the Pasco County line.
It was part of a larger plan to remove most of the median landscaping and give maintenance responsibility back to the state Department of Transportation. Residents who heard about the plan last weekend mobilized in opposition.
"We goofed because we didn't come to you in advance, and for that I apologize," said Lucia Garsys, a deputy county administrator. "This is not the way we want to conduct business."
County and DOT officials, as well as state Sen. John Legg, met with more than 100 concerned Lutz residents who packed the Lutz Community Center demanding answers.
"You are now in Lutz. Lutz is a different place," said Mike White, head of the Lutz Citizens Coalition. "You have a unique community here, we're trying to be independent and we're not being allowed that luxury."
Garsys and several other officials gave this explanation of why the proposed tree removal moved so quickly and without public input: The county determined it couldn't afford to keep maintaining the 14 medians and handed that responsibility to the DOT.
The medians' grassy areas are maintained by a private company. County officials concluded that the 86 trees in the median had to go because they were thought to be dead or dying.
That infuriated some residents, who reminded officials that they had made some concessions when U.S. 41 was expanded to six lanes.
"There was a contract with the county and FDOT, and part of it was a beautification of U.S. 41 that included the medians," resident Gaye Townsend said.
Lutz residents also brought in a certified arborist to rebut the county's claim that many of the trees were dead or dying. The county wanted to cut down as many as 60 crape myrtle trees, planted in 1998, citing maintenance issues and their age.
"Crepe myrtles have a lifespan of 25 to 50 years and, once they are established, need little maintenance," arborist Mary Bryson said. "These trees give us a sense of place. Don't take away our sense of place."
Other residents cited massive landscaping projects that the county had funded, including work done for the Republican National Convention. Others questioned the county's motives for removing the trees. County officials ultimately agreed to postpone any tree removal, allowing residents time to develop new proposals for maintaining the medians.
With so many civic associations and the community support, residents may find the means to do it themselves. The larger issues involve handling the maintenance while complying with liability and safety issues. The medians can be a dangerous place with cars driving by at high speeds on both sides, said Jim Moulton Jr., director of transportation operations for the DOT's Tampa district.
"It's not something you want the Girls Scouts to go out there and do. It's dangerous," he said.
Still, residents offered to step up and help.
"You provide the insurance, people here will do it," said Blake Olsen of the Citizens for Sanity group.
County officials also seemed appeared willing to help.
"We want the county to function as an intermediary with volunteer groups," Garsys said.