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A clear-cut mistake?

After all the excuses, one fact remains: 1,747 trees have disappeared from Ashington Reserve. New Tampa is gradually losing its tall trees to development, and environmentalists want to know why.

It was an accident, the city says. It was a mistake, the developer agrees. And now more than a year later, 1,747 palm, pine and cypress trees of all sizes are gone, improperly cleared for a new subdivision.

"It was a simple mistake," said Tampa assistant city attorney Andrea Zelman. "You don't like to see it happen, but it just slipped through the cracks."

That's the city's explanation for how it gave Lennar Homes permission to clear more than 50 percent of the trees on 73 acres in Ashington Reserve, even though Lennar failed to get the necessary variance.

Wait just one minute, some environmentalists are saying.

"We were told, "Oops, it was a mistake,' " said Denise Layne, co-chair of the Tampa Sierra Club's conservation committee. "I'm sorry, but, "Oops, 1,700 trees' doesn't make sense to me."

Tipped to the clearing this spring, the Sierra Club is now trying to figure out how so many trees could be felled with so little oversight. With homes, apartments and businesses going up almost daily in New Tampa, the group says it has become even more important to pay careful attention to how decisions get made about tree removal.

"It's the process," said Layne. "Something is wrong."

According to those in the know, this is how the tree saga unfolded:

Kearney Development Co., a subcontractor for Lennar, applied to the city's Department of Housing and Development Coordination on June 24, 1999, seeking a permit to remove trees for the new subdivision off Palms Springs Boulevard, west of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Some 1,747 trees needed to be removed to make room for the 98-lot subdivision of three- and four-bedroom homes, which start at $220,000. Ashington Reserve and its "Classic Homes" are an extension of the popular and sold-out Ashington subdivision located directly to the south.

Removing that many trees typically would have required approval from the Variance Review Board, since the developer wanted to take more than half the trees on the property.

"We thought they went to the (Variance Review Board)," said David Jennings, residential development coordinator with the city. "But they didn't."

Five days later, a clerk in Jennings' office signed off on the permit.

Zelman said the clerk either thought the company had received the go-ahead from the Variance Review Board or didn't realize the number of trees planned for uprooting exceeded the 50 percent rule.

"In the guy's defense, it is typical in New Tampa to get a tree removal variance," she said.

With the permit in hand, Kearney Development began site work at Ashington Reserve.

"Lennar went ahead and removed the trees," Zelman said. "It was caught after the fact."

Officials with Kearney Development could not be reached for comment.

But Robert Ahrens, president of Lennar's Central/West Florida Land Division, said he has "no idea" how the trees were cut down without Kearney going through the proper channels.

"For whatever reason, Kearney was able to get a permit and we missed a step," he said. "Kearney wasn't aware we missed it. The engineer missed it. The city missed it."

That's the problem, Sierra Club officials said. They believe there are too many holes in the process.

Lynn McGarvey, who co-chairs the conservation committee with Layne, said the city needs to be more attuned to protecting the environment, and thus should streamline its tree-removal process.

"You need documentation so somebody can be responsible, so somebody can monitor it," she said. "The permit said no "grand trees' were taken, but we don't know. The problem with these properties is that nobody is really living around these properties. Nobody is checking in on these properties."

While 1,747 sounds like a lot of trees, Zelman downplayed the mass cutting.

"They were not beautiful, grand oaks," she said. "In New Tampa, it tends to be more scrawny pines covering the landscape up there."

But Layne said they are still important to the New Tampa ecosystem.

"There are reasons there are thousands and thousands of cypress and pine trees out there," she said. "It is part of our filtering system for our drinking water. They have a purpose."

Little by little, New Tampa is losing its stands of tall trees, many of which exceed 35 feet in height, to developers' bulldozers.

The property where the 1,747 trees once stood is now a series of twisting streets and cul de sacs surrounded by bare dirt and homes in various stages of construction. The first Ashington Reserve family is scheduled to move in next week.

Other stands of trees still surround the subdivision.

The Sierra Club says it is awaiting assurance from the city that, in the future, so many trees will not be removed without the reviews and approvals. The group is also hoping for improvements to the city's ordinance on trees and landscaping, which was overhauled about two years ago.

"I'm not saying save every tree," Layne said. "But they sure don't have to go in and scrape an entire project clean."

Ahrens said his company has apologized for the tree clearing and has given the engineering firm of Heidt & Associates oversight into future tree removals scheduled for the remainder of Area 4 and development that is about to begin in Area 8, which Lennar owns.

Lennar also has promised to replant 2,435 trees in Ashington Reserve or other areas throughout Area 4, or pay fees into the city's tree trust fund.

Ahrens said his company will do its part to make sure trees aren't haphazardly removed and the city must do its part and not issue permits when they shouldn't.

"A couple of people made a mistake," he said. "We're willing to say we made a mistake. We're not saying we got away with anything."

_ Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melaniesptimes.com.

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