TAMPA — Some lushly landscaped road medians in Hillsborough County could soon become the latest casualty of government budget cuts.
The cash-strapped county is preparing to rip out crape myrtles, magnolia trees and flowering shrubs from the medians of community "gateways" in Brandon and Lutz. It already has done this in Ruskin, where decorative plants along U.S. 41 were relocated to the county jail.
The county says it can no longer afford to maintain the roadside plants. It is trying, with mixed success, to get local businesses, chambers of commerce and neighborhood associations to take over the responsibility and shoulder the costs.
And if that doesn't happen?
"By the end of the summer, these medians are going to go back to some very meager sod and maybe some palm trees here and there — nothing like what they are now," said county spokesman Steve Valdez.
So miles of landscaping on Brandon Boulevard and U.S. 41 in Lutz could soon fall victim to shovels and backhoes. The county knows this would be an unpopular move, but it says it has no choice.
At issue are four state roads where the county agreed to take care of extra plants. The state won't maintain landscaping along its roads and highways beyond mowing the grass.
"We can't afford to do it anymore," Valdez said. "It's better to have sod than to have an overgrown, once-lushly landscaped median that has weeds higher than the plants. Without being maintained, it goes from a welcoming appearance to unsightly very quickly."
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Some question whether the county's move is wise.
"A penny-wise, pound-foolish decision," Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena calls it. She and fellow council member Mary Mulhern asked the county to change its mind at a recent meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a city-county transportation board. Shade trees and planted medians help make a livable community, they said.
"This is a lose-lose," Saul-Sena said. "It undermines the original investment that was made. These trees are years old, so they've matured and provide more shade than they did when they were originally planted. … And it costs money for the removal."
County Commissioners Brian Blair and Mark Sharpe, who are on the same transportation board, said they would take another look at the issue but couldn't make any guarantees.
"It serves a number of purposes, and I think it's a value," Sharpe said of the landscaping. But "it is a budgetary issue."
The city of Tampa has agreed to care for landscaped medians that the state will soon build on Busch and Gandy boulevards, but it asked the state to scale back landscaping plans for a reconstructed Interstate 275, said Santiago Corrada, the city's neighborhood services administrator.
As for the county, Valdez says it hopes to save up to $80,000 a year in landscaping and watering bills — roughly the equivalent of two employees' salaries.
Here are the four medians that are affected:
Brandon: This week, the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce will discuss taking over the landscaping on State Road 60 through Brandon. "We're looking at what the costs will be," said vice president Laura Simpson, who said the chamber would likely seek sponsors. "Without that partnership, we're in danger of reverting to the concrete or grass medians."
Lutz: U.S. 41 has landscaping from the point where Florida and Nebraska avenues meet all the way to the Pasco County line. "The state says the oak trees are the only thing that can stay," Valdez said. "We want to meet with some businesses and homeowners associations to see if they want to assume responsibility."
Riverview: The owner of Total Tree & Lawn Care signed up with the Riverview Chamber of Commerce to care for scores of crape myrtle trees along U.S. 301.
Ruskin: Ruskin leaders couldn't find sponsors for four landscaped medians along U.S. 41. The Sheriff's Office took out the shrubs and ground cover for use around the Falkenburg Road Jail, "so it's not going to waste," Valdez said. Last week, workers started laying down sod.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.