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Tree removal a clear-cut mistake

A version of this story appeared in some regional editions of the Times.

It was an accident, the city says; a mistake, the developer agrees. 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 last year to clear more than half the trees on 73 acres in Ashington Reserve, even though Lennar failed to get the required variance.

Not good enough, some environmentalists say.

"We were told, "Oops, it was a mistake,' " said Denise Layne, co-chairwoman 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 club says it's important to pay careful attention to 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 is an extension of the popular and sold-out Ashington subdivision directly to the south.

Because more than half the trees on the property would be removed, the developer needed the approval of the Variance Review Board. That didn't happen.

City officials thought the company did just that. But they didn't.

Thinking everything was in order, a clerk working for David Jennings, the city's residential development coordinator signed off on the permit.

Zelman said the clerk either thought the board had approved it or didn't realize the board needed to approve it.

"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 went to work. The error was caught after the fact, said Zelman.

Kearney Development officials could not be reached for comment.

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

"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 leaders said. They believe there are too many holes in the process.

Lynn McGarvey, co-chairwoman with Layne of the conservation committee, said the city should streamline its tree removal process.

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.

"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, developers are bulldozing New Tampa's stands of tall trees, many of which exceed 35 feet in height.

The property where the 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 surround the subdivision.

The Sierra Club wants assurance that so many trees will not be removed again without proper approval. The group also wants to improve the city's ordinance on trees and landscaping, which was overhauled about two years ago.

Ahrens said his company has apologized for the tree-clearing and gave the engineering firm of Heidt & Associates oversight of future removals scheduled for the land it is developing in the area.

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

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