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Preserving nature, one tree at a time

The bronze Toyota Sienna passed rows of older homes hidden by a canopy of trees until it came upon a clearing of tractor-tire pressed dirt, sand piles and a pair of yellow bulldozers moving around the barren landscape like running rhinos.

"This," Les Githens said above the engine hum, "is the valley of death."

Gray, dry and shredded dead branches are scattered across the dirt. In about three November days, Githens said, he watched work crews rip down what seemed to be a forest. He pointed to a depression in the dusty distance, which is where he said home construction crews dumped the dead before they burned them.

He was talking about tree stumps.

Githens, who has more than 45 oak trees lining his 4-year-old Citrus Hills home, and who rescued a dozen yucca lilies after construction crews dug them up on a nearby hillside, said he wants to put some teeth into Citrus County's tree ordinance. He has paid the county more than $500 in fees just to be heard.

He scheduled an official presentation at 9 a.m. today before the Planning and Development Review Board, which typically hears from lawyers, developers and builders, not 81-year-old man like Githens, who grew up literally hugging trees, if not falling into their branches, climbing when he was a child in rural Pennsylvania.

Githens said his booming 4,000-home Citrus Hills neighborhood, which will someday include 10,000 homes, isn't doing enough to protect Florida's oaks and pines, though much of the project is exempt from the local tree ordinance. He wants to see that changed.

At his dining room table, among piles of papers and maps and a notebook stickered with "Protect our Trees," Githens flips open a PowerPoint presentation he prepared that begins with a cartoon titled Growthzilla. It shows a developer running from the carnage with a suitcase of dollars.

He flips to another page labeled "My Intent."

"Show the destruction of many of our beautiful trees," one point states.

"To revoke the grandfather clause, which permits the developers to clear cut large acreage," reads another.

He turns to a picture of a street, where tall trees were uprooted, homes grew and short saplings were planted _ symbolic of the hierarchical shift he said has taken place in new Citrus Hills sections.

Areas once ruled by towering trees too thick to drive through are now dominated by two-story homes.

"Woodview," he said of one area of dirt pictured. "Isn't that ironic? Because they cut all the trees out of here."

Githens is a retired engineer who invented embossed steel doors that look like wooden doors. He inspected the first Curtiss Wright C-46 plane that "flew the Hump" in World War II.

He said he is passionate about trees after touring places such as the Middle East, where olive trees that used to be characteristic of the area during Biblical times no longer exist. He said he tires of hearing of world catastrophes such as frequent hurricanes and Haitian flooding, for which he blames global warming and, thus, a lack of trees.

"The way they're doing this," he said of builders, "they're destroying them unnecessarily. Yes, they're planting them _ quite a few here _ but that's not the Nature Coast. That's not the way nature meant it."

His solution, detailed in his presentation, is to require Citrus Hills to just budge its roads over a few feet to save ancient sprawling oak trees. He wants builders to incorporate living pines into golf courses and make new yards age faster by preserving a bit of the past.

He said he loves his neighborhood, and that he is not an extremist.

"Save everything?" Githens said. "You can't do that."

He hopes to just tweak Citrus County's tree ordinance, which requires builders to preserve or plant two trees on lots that are 10,000 square feet or smaller.

For bigger lots, builders have to preserve or plant one tree for every 3,000 square feet, or the equivalent of 15 trees per acre. (A developer is limited to preserving no more than 35 trees on a property.)

Farms and utility operations are exempt from the law, as are approved planned developments or subdivisions that receive legal authority to build years ago.

They, including Citrus Hills, don't have to plant or protect trees in common areas. But their individual developed lots must comply with the law.

Githens thinks Citrus Hills' exemption should be erased and replaced by mandates that require it to save a number of trees per each acre.

"These are aesthetics issues," county Development Services director Gary Maidhof said, "and I could argue both sides of the issue very well."

Over the years, the tree ordinance has drawn complaints. Its revisions in 2003 were passed after a controversial 3-2 vote because some felt it bowed to too many developer concessions.

Most recently, the $28-million Tradewinds River Resort in Homosassa came under county scrutiny last year after builders clear cut its riverfront site, changing the character of the oak-lined neighborhood.

A county investigation, however, determined developers didn't violate the ordinance because they planted or saved trees elsewhere on the site.

But the incident got officials asking whether the law should be revisited.

"We surely don't want to have anymore of the Tradewinds type of development," said County Commissioner Gary Bartell, who sees Githens' point, but also those of builders. "I mean, the pillaging and raping of the trees that were out there."

Githens thinks Citrus Hills, whose marketing director could not be reached by the Citrus Times Wednesday, is doing much the same.

"By law it's correct," Githens said, while standing on a white, yet-to-be-paved road that seems like a river cutting through orange, clear-cut banks of dirt. "But it's not right."

The Planning and Development Review Board meets at 9 a.m. at the Lecanto Government Building, 3600 W Sovereign Path.

Justin George can be reached at (352) 860-7309 or jgeorgesptimes.com.

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