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4 oaks cropped by Elks

The Largo Elks used a chainsaw last weekend to carve a notch in the city's recent recognition as a "Tree City USA." Four large oak trees that once separated busy East Bay Drive from the lodge's parking lot were sheared of almost all their branches and leaves.

Largo Recreation and Parks officials, who measured the destruction, said at least two-thirds of the trees were whittled away, leaving only tree stumps that are 4 to 5 feet high.

If the oaks do not grow back quickly, the Elks' treasury could undergo some serious trimming, also.

According to the city's recently revised tree ordinance, excessive trimming is the same as removing the trees. Violators could be subject to fines up to $500 per tree.

"We have a commitment to trees and we fully intend to uphold our commitment," said City Manager Stephen Bonczek.

Largo Elks representatives applied in January for a permit to move the trees to another location on their property.

Parks Supervisor Carl Sagro said the Elks' request was denied "because the trees were a part of a buffer agreement when the club was allowed to put in its parking lot."

Sagro said that when the Elks asked whether they could trim the trees, "they were told they could only trim the top branches."

Sagro said he "almost had a heart attack" when he passed the lodge Monday and saw that the trees had been cut.

Thursday afternoon, a Times reporter found a man stirring vats of spaghetti sauce in the lodge's kitchen. The man, who would identify himself only as the club's exalted ruler, refused to discuss the tree trimming except to say city officials had been by "and we've got this all worked out."

Sagro said Elks representatives assured him the trees "would grow back."

Sagro said the Elks wanted the oaks removed because they were blocking a new metal sign identifying the lodge.

Largo Parks Superintendent Bob Cooper said he has agreed to give the trees four months to grow back before leveling any fines.

"They seem to think they will spring back," Cooper said. "But they're not a tree that reacts well to a trimming like that."

Cooper said that if the trees don't come back the Elks will be required to replace the trees inch for inch.

Replacement could cost as much as $1,500, Cooper said.

"We're going to keep a close eye on this. We take it very seriously," Cooper said.

Only two weeks ago, after several years of effort, Largo was named a Tree City USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation. About 50 Florida cities are to receive the honor this year.

"We intend to implement and enforce our ordinance," Bonczek said. If the trees don't grow back as before, "we will require them to plant new trees."