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Residents want mangroves trimmed

The homeowners seek a better view of Tampa Bay. Commissioners ask a Pinellas agency to review the issue.

Residents at the Phillippe Pointe North subdivision want county approval to cut down mangrove trees they say obstruct their view of Tampa Bay.

For nearly a year, residents say they have asked the Pinellas County Department of Environmental Management to allow them to cut the state-protected vegetation down to a level that would allow a better view of the water.

At a Pinellas County Commission meeting last week, residents presented commissioners with red notebooks containing a year's worth of correspondence concerning requests to trim the mangroves bordering their property.

"We presented all the information to the commissioners just a few days ago," said Diane Cleveland, a spokeswoman for Phillippe Pointe neighborhood. "And at this time we feel it appropriate to give them a little more time to exercise their leadership of the issues presented to them . . . to work out an amicable solution with the staff."

Cleveland declined to talk further about the issue.

Mangroves are protected by state laws because they serve as a habitat and nursery ground for birds, fish and other wildlife along Florida's coast. The trees that border the Phillippe Pointe subdivision stretch as far off the quarter-mile shore as 50 yards.

Under state law, landowners who trimmed their mangroves before 1997 can continue periodic trimmings without obtaining a state permit.

"We issued some permits for some trimming out there, and they want to go above and beyond what they are allowed to do," said Jewel Cole, assistant county attorney. "This is an area where it is a pretty big stand of mangroves, and it was set aside as a conservation area back when the subdivision was initially developed. This is the reason trimming may go as far as they want to go."

Residents who opt to trim without state and county permission face strict penalties.

In August, for example, the property owner at 951 and 953 S Bayshore Blvd., about 5 miles south of Phillippe Pointe along the same coastline, agreed to pay the county $10,000 after officials discovered she did not have a permit to cut down 8,250 square feet of the protected trees.

The $10,000 collected from the Safety Harbor violator was placed in a tree bank trust fund, which the county uses to buy trees and restore damaged or illegally cut foliage. There is about $35,000 in that fund.

When the subdivision a half-mile south of State Road 580 was under construction in the late 1980s, the mangrove site was designated as a conservation area, said David Walker, environmental program manager for environmental management.

Even after much of the land was considered off-limits to cutting, Walker said, the department allowed trimming to 15 feet in some areas. There was fear that further trimming would disrupt the ecological system supported by the mangroves.

"We went out and talked to the people. We talked to them about what their views were and permitted some trimming based on that," he said. "Each site had its own characteristic. Some had a pond they wanted to look at, and in a lot of places they wanted a better view of the (Tampa) bay _ but it varied from property to property."

Commissioners asked the department to revisit the issue, speak again to residents and review its position on trimming, which Walker said would likely happen in the coming days.

"We're looking at the biological productivity of the mangroves," he said. "As you start to trim them, you lose some of that function, and the county has been trying to balance that where we can give residents a view without losing that productivity."