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Trees and hospital compete to be first priority

Blue jays spar among the tree limbs, and the wind makes a rustling sound as it sweeps through the green grove of live oaks and palms. But the predominant smell in the air is of sawdust.

Several trees in the small forest of 236 lie on the ground surrounded by piles of sawdust. About 95 trees are to be destroyed to make room for a 120-bed nursing and rehabilitation center being built by Morton Plant Hospital. The trees might be gone already if not for a protest by some members of the Mid-Pinellas Greens environmental group, which learned of the plans early last week and has brought about a temporary halt to the cutting.

The stand of trees is familiar to those who drive S Fort Harrison Avenue through Clearwater and Belleair. The beautiful, shady parcel at the corner of Corbett Street is separated from traffic by a pastoral-looking white fence. It is hard for motorists not to look at the property while driving along congested S Fort Harrison; the lot has more trees than any other they pass.

Morton Plant didn't want to build the new center on that lot. The hospital's first choice was a parcel to the west, where stand a parking lot and some houses owned by the hospital. But people who live in the neighborhood objected to the nursing center being built so close to their homes.

So Morton Plant moved to the Corbett Street site, but wanted to build a three-story building so less of the lot would be used and more of the forest could be saved. That didn't work, either. Belleair height restrictions prevented construction of anything taller than two floors.

Hospital officials said they have no choice now but to destroy the 95 trees to build a two-story nursing center. They at least are going about it carefully. Morton Plant has an annual contract with an arborist to care for the 800 trees on its collective sites, and that arborist will supervise not only the cutting of the trees, but the care of the remaining trees during construction. The trees that must come down are being cut instead of bulldozed to minimize harm to the site.

Hospital officials caught up in the dispute over the trees like to accentuate the positive. They note that the hospital is gladly doing as Belleair's tree ordinance requires: replanting as many trees as possible on the site and paying into a city tree bank for those that can't be replaced one-for-one. The city can use the tree bank to plant trees elsewhere.

But not so positive is that much of the towering tree canopy in that old section of Clearwater has been eliminated by the growth of Morton Plant and its associated businesses.

What was once just a hospital is now a campus. Buildings and parking lots are spreading out, and no amount of replanting young trees can replace the large specimens being cut down.

The dispute raises several legitimate issues.

Is Morton Plant doing enough to save trees on the site?

Perhaps the building could be redesigned and some unusual architectural techniques employed to preserve trees.

That might raise the cost, but there is also some advantage to being seen as an institution that wants to do the right thing.

Is Belleair's tree ordinance strong enough? It may need review, and town commissioners also might want to consider adding a provision to better protect large stands of trees like this one.

But tree ordinances are not the ideal vehicle for preserving existing trees. Their primary purpose is to allow responsible development of property while extracting money or new trees from the developers.

Those who love and want to preserve older trees would do better to lobby for reductions in density throughout their community and improved ratios of pavement to green space.

Ultimately every urban community faces this kind of conflict.

What gets higher priority, the environment or the needs of people? Should the objections of neighbors who don't want a nursing center near their homes be allowed to lead to using a site with greater environmental value? Should a beautiful forest take priority over the need for more nursing facilities to serve the area's growing population? At what point does a company's right to develop its property end and a community's need for green space and wildlife habitat begin?

In the end, there may be no truly satisfactory solutions.