CLEARWATER — About an hour into the neighborhood gathering, Mayor George Cretekos had had enough.
Cretekos strode to the front of the meeting area at St. Paul's Lutheran Church while residents bickered loudly, and called for calm.
The issue that had the crowd so riled up? Trees. More specifically, the city’s plans to remove about 155 trees from Crest Lake Park as part of a $6.4 million park redesign. The park is at its 60 percent plan stage; final design plans could be put before the city council as soon as this fall.
Located at Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Lake Drive, untold numbers of vacationers headed to Clearwater Beach pass Crest Lake Park on their way. It’s near the gateway to downtown. But just a few years ago, citizens complained that the 38.5-acre park, which should be a display of the city’s natural beauty, had fallen into disrepair.
In 2013, a few days after a 22-year-old man was stabbed to death near the park, one resident wrote a letter to the Tampa Bay Times calling Crest Lake a “refuge for the homeless and a hunting ground for the violent."
The park’s revitalization has become one of Cretekos’ signature initiatives.
That was the context for the Aug. 28 Skycrest Neighborhood Association meeting, where residents asked officials a variety of pointed questions about the plans for the park: about its new bathroom, whether to add more benches and about the new sand volleyball court. Dozens attended the gathering, including the mayor, City Manager Bill Horne and at least three 2020 city council candidates.
As a matter of policy, the city conducts an inventory of trees as a part of major projects like the park renovation, said arborist Matt Anderson. During the inventory at Crest Lake Park, which was conducted at the end of May, Anderson found that the vast majority of the trees now set to be removed — 142, to be exact — are either no longer structurally sound or invasive species. (The overwhelming majority are the former.)
“If we didn’t do anything in this park, didn’t spend another dime, we would remove those trees because they’re hazardous,” deputy parks and recreation director Art Kader said.
The remaining 13 that will be removed are healthy, but they stand in the way of proposed construction in the park, which is currently home to about 650 trees in total.
Anderson said that the city planned to replant at least 155 trees in the redesigned park to make up for the ones that will be taken away. Officials will also install owl boxes on live trees to help make up for any lost bird habitats, the arborist said.
Beth Davis, a Clearwater resident who brought a sign to the association meeting that read “plant 2x what you remove,” was concerned about the city’s track record of replanting trees.
Last year, Clearwater eliminated 300 trees from Coachman Ridge Park in order to build stormwater mitigation ponds. Officials promised to replant 1,465 trees to make up for the ones they cut down.
“It doesn’t look like there’s 1,465 trees,” Davis said in an interview at the meeting.
Catherine Corcoran, a landscape architect with the city, said the young three-gallon trees were, in fact, planted between the mitigation ponds.
Anderson said in Crest Lake Park, the plan is to plant smaller trees that will establish roots quickly and require less water.
The trees slated for removal, some of which are already gone, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, Anderson’s inventory showed. Some are puny crape myrtles that show no signs of life. They never took to the environment to begin with, and Anderson said they should never have been planted.
Others are majestic organisms ideally suited to Florida’s environment that for various reasons have become susceptible to falling down over time, Anderson said. Some have hollow wounds from years of pruning. Others were struck by lightning or have destabilizing fungi.
A few days before the Skycrest neighborhood meeting, city officials toured the park with residents, pointing out structural defects in various trees.
A falling tree can do significant damage. Last month, the City Council agreed to settle for $180,000 a years-old case in which a laurel oak fell and crushed a passing motorist, severely injuring her. It was a freak accident, but officials stressed the safety hazards posed by unhealthy trees at the Skycrest meeting.
Many attendees were unmoved by the city’s arguments. Several expressed concern about the climate implications of cutting down trees, which naturally suck planet-heating carbon dioxide out of the air.
High school teacher Sarah Colón lives just across city lines in Largo, but she frequents the park. She noted that the city planned to refurbish Crest Lake Park with money won from the BP oil spill settlement.
“It seems like that money should be put into preserving and maintaining, so I hope that’s what they’re doing,” Colón said in an interview.
Others were even more critical. The perception of bad faith on the part of the city was so strong that the meeting’s planners had to beat back unfounded speculation that the gathering’s time was changed from its usual Tuesday to a Wednesday at the last minute in order to make attendance less likely.
By about an hour into the meeting, crosstalk consumed the proceedings, prompting Mayor Cretekos to step in. A couple of attendees stormed out; still others were upset that they were limited to just one question apiece.
“If anybody thinks that (city staff) have just come up with this plan to trick you or deceive you, you’re not being honest with yourself,” Cretekos said.
The meeting ended soon after Cretekos’ comments.