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Pasco communities grapple with paying for damage done by county-required trees

LAND O'LAKES — The county had a noble goal several years ago when it began requiring a certain number of trees in new neighborhoods. The trees have practical benefits, such as controlling stormwater runoff and stabilizing the soil. But the real goal was making neighborhoods pretty places to live.

Now, those trees have grown up, and they're sprouting problems. Oaks that line the streets in these neighborhoods are busting up sidewalks and causing a maintenance headache.

The county won't pay for sidewalk repairs. Developers who planted the trees are long gone by the time the trees reach maturity. So the responsibility falls to homeowners' associations and community groups.

Consider Oakstead, a gated community in Land O'Lakes. That community has replaced dozens of trees and has another 16 slated for removal in the coming weeks, according to Fred Krauer, a board member of Oakstead's Community Development District.

"They're beautiful trees," he said. "The problem is where they were planted."

On a tour of the neighborhood, he pointed out several sidewalk cracks caused by trees planted in the narrow space between the street and the sidewalk. Over time, he said, the cracks will get bigger and the safety hazard will get worse. Besides the sidewalk issues, he said, the roots are crimping water and utility lines.

Pat Gassaway, an engineer with the Tampa firm Heidt Design that works with developers, said he hopes the county will "reconsider its position" and start paying for sidewalk repairs.

"We desperately want to keep (the trees), because they will change the face of this community for the better," he said. "We need to make sure we find an equitable solution."

Gassaway noted that Tampa and Hillsborough County maintain sidewalks in the right-of-way. Roughly half of Tampa's $1.8 million sidewalk budget goes toward repairs. Hillsborough no longer builds new sidewalks but continues to repair existing paths. The county doesn't cover sidewalks in gated communities.

According to Gassaway, those governments say: "We love street trees. We'll, over the long term, maintain those little tidbits of sidewalk that are damaged when trees do what they naturally do."

Michele Baker, Pasco's chief assistant county administrator, said the county isn't rushing to take over sidewalk maintenance, especially in lean budget times. Such work would likely be paid for with gas taxes that pay for road repairs. That fund is stretched.

"We are very premature in saying that this would be a role that government plays," she said. "Do I want to pay for the sidewalks in X subdivision in Pasco County? That's difficult. You always want the cost to be borne by people who are benefited."

Added Jim Flateau, president of the Pasco Alliance of Community Associations: "The county doesn't have the money, let's be serious. It's very often difficult to come up with rules that please everyone."

He favors a rule that allows each neighborhood group to decide the issue. In some cases, the tree is the responsibility of the homeowner. In others, the community sets aside money for repairs.

But, as Gassaway argues, "sometimes community associations might not have considered that in preparing their budgets."

And how. Krauer said Oakstead now spends $8,000 on sidewalk repairs, up from $3,000 in previous years. Replacing a section of sidewalk and hiring an arborist to grind the offending roots can cost more than $1,000. Taking out a tree can be roughly half that.

Krauer acknowledged that you "can't just go indiscriminately through and take out all the trees. It does add character to the community. You're living in a community called Oakstead, you have to have oak trees."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco communities grapple with paying for damage done by county-required trees 10/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 11:58am]
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