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Trees have protector in Safety Harbor's arborist

Art Finn, Arborist for the city of Safety Harbor, dumps used coffee grounds from a nearby Starbucks Coffee shop at the base of the Baranoff Oak, reported by the city of Safety Harbor as the oldest living live oak tree in Pinellas, with an age estimated to be between 300 and 500 years old. Finn routinely fortifies the soil around the tree with organic materials to help the tree's root system stay healthy. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Aug. 1, 2017

BY PIPER CASTILLO

Times Staff Writer

SAFETY HARBOR — After sharing just a slight smile when a visitor compared him to Dr. Seuss's Lorax, Art Finn walked up to the oak tree with one of his tools, a rubber mallet.

He began tapping.

"I was asked to do an evaluation in order to see if the homeowners should receive a permit to take the tree down,' he said.

Firm taps gave way to softer, hollow ones. Finn looked up, studying the tree's canopy.

"Well, it is a sad day. This tree is dead,'' he said, before giving the homeowner in this Bayshore area neighborhood a permit to take the tree down.

Back in 2015, after an uproar concerning a developer legally tearing down a dozen oak trees near the Safety Harbor Spa entrance, city officials decided to tightened regulations on tree removals in Safety Harbor. In order to administer the new rules, they realized they needed a city arborist on the payroll. They lured Finn away from a similar post in Dunedin.

"Safety Harbor has incredible trees,'' Finn said. "For example, it is the only area of Pinellas County that we have so many live oaks within near the main part of downtown, a pretty small space.''

Since Finn has come to the city, he has taught the public how to care for existing trees in their backyards as well as what to look for when buying a replacement tree. He's held naming contests and provided lightning protection on several of the city's beloved oaks, and he's handled countless phone calls in city hall.

In 2017, the city is spending more than $100,000 on trees, according to City Manager Matt Spoor.

"Art is the person here who can answer the questions,'' Spoor said. "I think the biggest issue (in 2015) was that we were losing our tree canopy. We needed someone to handle all aspects of the new (rules) we put in place and Art filled those big shoes. We are serious about trees.''

Typically, Finn's week is divided between private residences and city owned properties, including spots along Main Street. He routinely makes a morning stop at Starbucks — not for a cup of Joe but for a bag of coffee grounds.

Once a week, he makes sure to spread grounds under Safety Harbor's most well-known tree, the Baranoff Oak, considered by many to be the oldest oak tree in Florida. Throughout the 2000s, the city worked to preserve the tree, and Finn has continued keeping a close eye on it.

"The coffee grounds help because there is such sandy soil here, and the coarseness helps the water work better. It's also a natural fertilizer when rains hit,'' he said. "I also plan to add more support. Old oaks like this one, well, the branches fall from the trunk and make a big wound. We need to support it so it can live its full lifetime.''

Finn also monitors the health of a swath of 12 Washington palms on Main Street that were part of a 1993 city landscaping project. Their lifespans are rapidly coming to an end.

"They have what is called Rachis blight. It's a fungal disease and they are very sick,'' he said. "We've already lost quite a few others from disease as well as lightning. It's unfortunate that people in Florida lean towards buying palms. They are not the easiest to maintain.''

Finn is also working on a project in conjunction with the city's 100th birthday.

"It's a kind of history project,'' he said. "I'm calling it the "Trail of Trees.''

Although it is a work in progress, highlights of the trail project already include the Baranoff (whose image is seen on the city's official logo), several more "monster trees'' like the Elf Tree (near the library) and the Pipkin Oak (named after Moses Pipkin, former owner of the Safety Harbor Spa).

It also includes the Lovers' Oak Tree, just a stone's throw from Tampa Bay on Bayshore Drive in front of the Lovers Oak 55 and up community. On a recent Friday, Finn took a visitor to the tree where he shared vintage photos from the early 20th century of people enjoying its shade and branches large enough to sit on.

"The Lovers Oak is a favorite. It really tells a story about life here, years ago,'' he said. "It continues to survive all these years later with a wide canopy.'

"You see a long branch where people (the lovers) sat until it eventually broke,'' he said. "It's neat how you see ways the tree has healed itself, how it sealed up its injuries.''

As he stood in the shade, Finn talked about struggles of residents' handling horticulture issues in Florida, the land of endless heat and sandy soil.

"You know a good way to learn about trees and plants is how I really did it,'' he said. "I came to Florida with a degree, but when I started pulling weeds at a nursery I started really to learn. Weed pulling is a good way to gain experience and education, and you start learning what you like and what you don't.''

Contact Piper Castillo at pcastillo@tampabay.com. Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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