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South Tampa residents rally to defend Plant High School trees

How close were more than 60 trees lining the Plant High School track to being cut down? It depends on whom you ask.
The Plant High School track, which runs behind the grandstand of Dad's Stadium, will be resurfaced with asphalt. More than 60 trees lining the track were considered for removal.
The Plant High School track, which runs behind the grandstand of Dad's Stadium, will be resurfaced with asphalt. More than 60 trees lining the track were considered for removal. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Nov. 26, 2019
Updated Nov. 26, 2019

TAMPA — As the words of its alma mater indicate, the community around Plant High School, which stands “‘neath the pines of Palma Ceia, near the bay’s deep blue,” takes its trees very seriously.

Though the trees are safe for now, a plan to renovate the Plant High track had many South Tampa residents firing off emails to the Hillsborough County School District and rallying online to stop what they feared could be the removal of more than 60 trees.

In May, Plant High sent a letter to surrounding property owners and neighborhood associations saying, “the school district would like to inform you and the neighborhood association about updates and repairs to Plant High School’s track. Several trees around the track and football field will have to be removed to accomplish this project.”

The letter stated the school would host an informal community open house to explain the project. Three people showed up.

None of the attendees were satisfied with answers from school officials.

“It was a complete waste of time,” said Caroll Ann Bennett, one of the three attendees. “They didn’t know costs. They didn’t know how many trees would be cut. They weren’t briefed on the project. They couldn’t answer a single question.”

Chelsea Johnson, president of Bayshore Beautiful Homeowner’s Association and founder of the tree activist organization “Tree Something, Say Something,” also attended the meeting. She said a map of the track with the surrounding trees, labeled “tree removal plan” was posted at the meeting. More than 60 pines, oaks, palms and shrubs on the map were each labelled with the term “Remove”, while nine trees were designated “Save.”

Michael McNabb, president of the Palma Ceia West Neighborhood Association, was also disappointed.

“We were not given any handouts to take,” McNabb said. “I thought they’d at least have a picture, or budget.”

At the end of June, the three walked the track along with school board members and an arborist. Johnson said they took a count of the trees and shrubs lining the track.

Chelsea Johnson, president of Bayshore Beautiful Homeowner's Association.
Chelsea Johnson, president of Bayshore Beautiful Homeowner's Association. [ BY CHARLIE FRAGO | Times ]

They agreed the track was not in good condition; it needed to be resurfaced. But they didn’t understand why trees would need to be cut down.

Johnson reached out to Steve Michelini, a South Tampa resident and consultant for the Tampa Bay Builders Association, who has worked with tree advocates on city issues in the past. Michelini’s daughter had run cross country for Plant, and he helped to raise funds for the track the last time it was resurfaced.

Tree removal, Michelini said, did not need to happen.

If anything needed to be done now, he said, he thought root pruning or air spading, techniques to address the roots harming the track, would be cheaper alternatives to cutting down entire trees.

After walking the track in June, Johnson thought the plan to remove trees had been abandoned, as she didn’t hear anything further.

But two weeks ago, Plant High School administrators and the school board called Johnson for a meeting. Burnett and McNabb, who attended the initial meeting in May, came too.

School officials provided no further information, the three said. The group was confused why the meeting had been called. Johnson said the school thought the three, along with an arborist, may have come up with an alternate plan for the track.

“We aren’t engineers,” Bennett said in recalling the meeting.

It was then, Michelini said, that whispers of the trees’ potential fate “set off shockwaves through the community.”

South Tampa message boards on Next Door, the social networking site for neighborhoods, saw a flurry of posts asking about what was going on at Plant High. The Tampa Garden Club mobilized its members. Johnson encouraged the members of Tree Something, Say Something to reach out to the school board and superintendent as others had been doing, with a sample script, urging them “to reevaluate the short-sighted plans to clear cut the trees surrounding the track.”

Last week, Plant High Principal Johnny Bush notified school families in a letter and robocall that no trees would be removed.

“I believe some may have been misinformed or misunderstood what the school was looking into,” district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said in an email to the Times. “There is no plan to remove trees around the track at Plant High School.”

Arja said that repaving the track in asphalt will cost about $90,000, while a rubberized track would have cost about $205,000. Had the school opted for the more expensive option, she said Plant would have raised the funds privately. After the district consulted with two arborists, who Arja said agreed on the necessity of tree removal if the rubber track was selected, the school decided to go with asphalt.

“The school made a decision that is best for their students and is financially responsible,” Arja said. She added she does not expect any trees to be impacted.

Plant High administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

Johnson said while she’s glad the trees are safe for now, she was not happy with the lack of information from the school district.

“I feel they missed an opportunity to engage with the community and connect with the neighborhood and stakeholders,” she said. “It’s nice they listened to the community in the end."