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County will take a new look at tree ordinance

Les Githens was David, picking a fight with Citrus County's Goliath in terms of growth. He targeted Citrus Hills, a nearly half-formed development that could someday eclipse the city of Inverness in size.

But with one small slingshot of a PowerPoint presentation at the Planning and Development Review Board meeting Thursday, the 81-year-old Githens didn't just make a compelling argument about the number of trees developers are felling.

He also got board members to consider re-examining Citrus' entire tree ordinance, which was revised in 2003 after a two-year struggle between builders and environmentalists.

Githens paid about $500 in county legal advertising fees just to get his pet project on the planning board agenda.

He wants to amend the tree ordinance and remove an exemption that allows "planned developments" such as Citrus Hills to clear cut their acreages when they prepare new roads, common areas and home sites.

Githens launched into a presentation that included stark "before" and "after" pictures of work being done in his neighborhood of Citrus Hills.

"You'll see my cane over there," he said, referring to a picture where he compared his 37-inch tall walking aid to one of a few trees on a lot that work crews left standing.

He also brought up "the children."

"What we really want to do is save these (trees) for future generations," he said.

He even went to the Bible to drum up support.

"If Noah wanted to build an ark," Githens said, "he couldn't do it."

Avis Craig, Citrus Hills' development director, came prepared to counter Githens' arguments.

She said many of the areas Githens pointed to are where roads must be laid and utilities dug. It would be impossible to put them in without cutting strangling thickets, she said.

"Yes, during development it's not a pretty picture because trees are being removed," Craig said. "When we develop our projects, we just don't leave them in a desert condition."

Instead, Citrus Hills preserves as many large oaks as it can, she said, preferably in large groups on planned park and open space areas.

She noted that much of the large development used to be pastures and watermelon fields _ not forests. She said builders have to clear cut to fill in and grade land to meet the state's building code.

And, she said, of the overall 2,000-acre Terra Vista of Citrus Hills project, which is the section of Citrus Hills being built now, only about 6 percent _ or 110 acres _ has been cleared.

"Our exemption means we could come out and clear cut," Craig said. "But that's not our intention. That's not our preference."

Clark Stillwell, an Inverness land-use lawyer who represents many builders and developers, said lifting exemptions in the tree ordinance "discourages good planning" by making it harder for developers to retool old obsolete plans filed years ago and make them modern.

But Githens' message seemed to be seeping through to planning board members, anyway.

"Our tree ordinance is not worth the powder to blow it to hell," Marion Knudsen said. "So we have to do something about it."

She brought up a few examples over the past few years where clear cutting has drastically altered a community's characteristics.

"A good tree ordinance has to cover the county," she said, "and not have an endless excuse of tree cutting."

While her peers didn't say whether they agreed with Githens' proposal, they agreed it was time to revisit the ordinance.

"We knew it was not perfect when we did it," Raymond Hughes said.

The board will discuss the ordinance during a public hearing on Feb. 3.

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