A stand of trees in the way of a new nursing and rehabilitation center at Morton Plant Hospital isn't likely to be there long, hospital officials say. Workers stopped cutting the trees earlier this week at N Fort Harrison Avenue and Corbett Street as environmentalists picketed, but the cutting could begin again as soon as Monday, said Paul Gramblin, Morton Plant spokesman.
"We're going back over our plans, consulting with our tree company, making sure our plans meet the criteria with the city," Gramblin said. "But it's unlikely our plans are going to change in any significant way."
After more than a year of delays and rejections, hospital officials in September won approval from the Belleair Town Commission to build a 120-bed, two-story center. Although earlier sites and plans had drawn fire from neighbors concerned about the proximity of the building to homes and the structure's height, the new project drew little opposition.
Clearwater resident Mike Whalen lives on Reynolds Avenue near the Belleair border and said he knew nothing about the project until he saw several trees down as he was returning home from a run last week. Whalen, a member of the Mid-Pinellas Greens, an environmental group that advocates preserving and proliferating green spaces, asked why the trees were being cut.
Monday morning, Whalen and a handful of protesters staked out the site. "We have no objection to the facility, but where the facility is going is not good," he said. About 15 trees were cut before work halted.
About 95 trees in a grove of 236 must go to make room for the building. "Ninety percent are oaks," Whalen said. "The place is beautiful. We feel it's a special area. If you look across the street, you see older oaks. These oaks are kind of the progeny of those oaks. This family of trees has been there a long time."
Young trees the hospital is required to plant can't replace the cut ones, Whalen said.
Most of the oaks are 20 to 40 years old, and the grove is home to squirrels and birds, Whalen said.
"This stand provides a canopy," he said. "It has intrinsic value as an ecosystem that is becoming rare in this area, that is rare in Pinellas County."
The Greens are organizing in hopes of persuading Morton Plant to move the center to another site, Whalen said.
At a work session Tuesday, Belleair commissioners denied a request that public discussion of the project be put on the meeting agenda for June 18.
The trees are important to many people outside of Belleair and those people didn't know about the project, said Clearwater resident and Greens member Patty Sanphy.
"The only sound a tree ever makes is when its guts are being wrenched out by a chain saw," she said. "There are no trees here tonight so we have to speak for them.
"Now that we know the trees are being cut down, don't you want to hear what people have to say?" she asked.
Once plans are approved, the commission told the Greens, it's too late to ask to stop a project.
"We held public hearings," Mayor Edward Moran said. "Our commission spent months and many hours on this. That's when someone should come in and tell us what they need. You put us in a very difficult position."
Commissioners said trying to revoke permits might cause legal problems for the town. They told the Greens members to talk to hospital officials and to the residents of Supplee Place and Corbett Street who opposed other building sites. If they come to an agreement, they can bring their plan back to the commission June 18.
Sandra Hugg, who will be director of the center once it is built, said the project could be changed.
"We can do it, but every time we do the cost is passed on to you and me," she said. "Morton Plant will do what it thinks is right."
Hospital officials could not estimate what the changing plans would cost.
While the hospital reviews its plans, Greens members will continue picketing and talking to residents in Belleair and Clearwater.
"I'm going to be out there every day," Sanphy said. "We need to continue raising public awareness about these trees being killed."