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They can't see the logic for the trees

The traffic and strip malls on U.S. 19 start to thin out north of Pasco County. Up the road in Hernando County, just south of Weeki Wachee, is Northcliffe Boulevard.

A white gazebo stands in the median of Northcliffe where it meets U.S. 19. The gazebo is not there for any particular purpose other than to look nice, which it certainly does.

The gazebo is surrounded by azaleas and juniper amid a neat cover of mulch. The well-trimmed lawn of the median is dotted with flower beds. There is a sprinkler system and spotlights are trained on the gazebo.

Although Northcliffe is a public street, one of the main east-west routes through Spring Hill, these improvements have been made by the surrounding residents, businesses and groups such as the Spring Hill Garden Club. They chip in.

Why? "We live here," says Thomas Troisi, the president of the Oak Hills Unit 23 Homeowners Association.

As you head east on Northcliffe, however, the median becomes less attractive. In fact, it is a flat, curbless slash of scruffy weeds and sandy patches, a contrast to the well-kept homes and lawns on either side.

The residents do not like this.

About three years ago, somebody in the community came up with the idea of lining the median with 100 or so palm trees. They figured there'd be plenty of room for an average of three trees a block. The median is 8 to 22 feet wide, and comes in blocks 169 to 795 feet long.

Palm trees in Florida. Not new.

Support cooled off when they worked up a price tag of $12,500. Nobody could come up with that kind of money.

So nothing happened until a few months ago, when the Spring Hill Civic Association president called the Oak Hills president and said he knew a guy from Pursley Tree Farms who could give them a better deal.

A great deal. That $12,500 dropped to about $2,000, a manageable cost. Excited, the neighborhood groups worked up a plan.

All they needed was the approval of the Hernando County Commission.

You can see where this is going.

I have a memo from the county staff dated May 19 under the heading, "I.O.M. PWA-92/93-279, RE: REQUEST TO PLACE PALM TREES IN NORTHCLIFFE BOULEVARD MEDIANS."

Allow me to boil it down.

It said: No.

The street might have to be widened one day, the memo said.

What's more, "County Facility Design Guidelines and state standards do not allow for the placement of trees within county rights-of-way."

The memo said the trees could "have a negative impact on sight distance," which I believe means, "might block the view."

Most important, the memo said that people who ran off the road and hit a tree might sue the county.

"Alternatives, such as shrubbery, can be equally pleasing in appearance without endangering the motoring public," the memo added, helpfully.

The County Commission met June 1 and voted 4-0 against the homeowners.

Troisi and two others residents, Lloyd Daniel and Howard Furlong, showed me around last week. They made me promise to say what happened, that I looked them up; they're not trying to make the county look bad. They still hope to persuade it.

Daniel doesn't buy the legal argument. Couldn't the trees just as easily keep an out-of-control car from jumping into oncoming traffic?

Besides, he said, if the county based all its decisions in fear of getting sued, "it should just close all its buildings, and fire all its employees."

The story may not be over. There has been a lot of comment since the vote, mostly in favor of the trees, although one resident wrote a letter to the editor saying her brother had been killed when he hit a palm tree at only 35 mph.

Troisi said other groups hoping to beautify their own neighborhoods have been calling to offer help. "We're looking for support of people to maybe enlighten the commission," he said.

"Maybe," Troisi said with considerable optimism for someone dealing with the government, "we're not wrong."

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