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Disagreement Over Street Tree Policy Plays Out Between CDD Supervisors and Staff

The February 5 meeting of the Westchase CDD saw supervisors give strong pushback to their CDD engineer’s memo, which suggested Westchase’s street oak trees were a long-term problem that needed resolution.

At the meeting’s end, Supervisor Brian Ross called on the board to hire a new engineer.

Supervisors opened the meeting by passing a consent agenda that accepted the previous meeting’s minutes, December’s financial statements and the district’s 2019 audit. Supervisor Brian Ross, however, asked that it be noted that the audit was clean and flagged no issues. Later in the meeting Supervisor Greg Chesney stated that at the end of the 2018 fiscal year the district had a fund balance of $4,745,830, which increased by $256,440, representing the amount that assessments exceeded expenditures.

Supervisors then heard from three West Park Village residents, who complained they had not been notified of pond bank erosion repairs adjacent to their homes. The work, stated Desmond Curran, was causing significant noise and dirtying his home, pressure washed the previous week.

CDD Field Manager Doug Mays apologized and acknowledged that while had notified some of the affected homeowners, he had not notified those homeowners present as he originally believed the work would be farther from their homes. Instead, the company hired for the repairs needed to access the pond by using CDD property adjacent to Mr. Curran’s home. Mays stated the work should be completed within two weeks and committed to cleaning up the area and power-washing anything left dirty. Mr. Curran, his wife and his neighbor thanked Mays and supervisors for their responsiveness and Mays stated he would try to better inform all nearby homes for future projects. 

Patrick Nealon from Stonebridge inquired about the street tree replacement moratorium supervisors passed in January. He stated he had received county permits to replace two neighborhood oak trees with crepe myrtles. He stated Stonebridge was unique in that its right of way was narrower than those in other neighborhoods and that Stonebridge’s sidewalk ran on only one side of the road. He added that his community had already replaced 70 percent of the street oaks and the moratorium, passed to enable the district to adopt a plan to ensure street consistency in neighborhoods, was an impediment to Stonebridge moving toward the goal of full replacement with crepe myrtles. “I’d like the board to reconsider or give us an exception,” he stated.

Village Green resident Ray Chiaramonte, however, stood and stated he strongly supported the district keeping its existing canopy trees, adding that he wanted two more oaks planted on the side road running down his corner lot to shade his home. “Hyde Park has lots of crooked sidewalks and I would buy there if I could afford it,” he said. To retain the beauty of a tree canopy over streets, Chiaramonte added, communities just have to fix unlevel sidewalks. Chiaramonte asked supervisors for permission to plant the two additional oaks. Later in the meeting Field Manager Doug Mays stated he had refused to plant the additional trees because he knew, sometime in the future, the district would have to fix the adjacent sidewalks.

CDD Chair Jim Mills observed that the two residents represented two different viewpoints. “Therein lies the challenge,” he said.

Later in the meeting supervisors returned to the street tree issue and the street tree plan they asked Stantec’s Kyle Steele, a landscape architect, to develop for them. With the arrival of Paul Woods of OLM, the district’s landscaping reviewer, CDD Engineer Tonja Stewart of Stantec stood to address a memo she had compiled after Woods, Mays, Steele and she toured the community.

In recent CDD meetings, CDD staff members’ views of street trees have conflicted with some board members’ wishes that the original tree canopy, a goal of Westchase’s developer, be maintained with some flexibility. In January, supervisors hired Steele to develop a consistent street tree plan for addressing tree density problems and replacing problem trees with ones that match existing ones in neighborhoods. In recent meetings, however, instead of addressing their aesthetic concerns and preferences for maintaining the street tree canopy, staff has instead emphasized the problems posed by street trees, citing their effects on sidewalks, the challenges they pose to growing Westchase’s required front lawns and the occasional impact on sewage lines. Staff has instead emphasized an approach that would result in the street trees’ long-term replacement.

Stewart stated her memo detailed reasons for considering updates to the trees. Among other points, the memo stated that most of Westchase’s oak street trees were in decline because they were crowded or did not have enough space to grow in the rights of way. Second, her memo stated that higher ground water levels were stressing the trees, meaning they would not survive long-term. Citing recent stump grinding by staff, Stewart’s memo observed that they had found that most of the street trees had root structures of only 18 to 24 inches deep, which, the memo added, “is very shallow for structural support during heavy winds.”

Wood, who reviews the CDD landscaper’s performance monthly, added tree bases were rising out of the ground due to the lack of optimal space for growth, which the memo stated was 30 feet by 30 feet. “In Glencliff we are seeing decline that is terminal,” he added.

While Chair Jim Mills and Supervisor Matt Lewis, attending the meeting telephonically, did not clearly address their preference for handling street trees, the idea for allowing residents to pull original street trees received some support from Supervisor Forrest Baumhover. Stewart’s memo, however, received strong pushback from Supervisor Brian Ross and Greg Chesney. “My reaction to what I’ve read and heard from you is that it’s old news,” Ross said of the tree challenges. “We’ve heard this for years.”

Ross said the real goal why Stantec’s Steele was hired was to create a street tree plan to address aesthetic consistency. “Some people bought into the community because of the trees,” he said. “We need to try to honor that.” Stating he was familiar with popular community features touted by Realtors, Ross added, “Trees add to the value of your home.”

In past meetings, Ross suggested another solution to the street trees entailed the district budgeting for future sidewalk leveling and repairs.

Stating he was still waiting to see the requested street tree plan, Ross concluded, “I’m more interested in discussing uniformity.”

“I agree 100 percent,” said Chesney. Referring to Stewart’s memo, he added, “This looks like just a justification to dig up our trees, which the board put a stop to.”

He continued, “This is kind of irritating to see. This looks like you’re making excuses for digging out all our street trees.”

Observing that he saw no evidence in his own neighborhood that the majority of the street oaks were in decline, WOW’s reporter referenced the Hyde Park street trees previously mentioned by Chiaramonte and asked Stewart how street oaks there seemed to be thriving despite ground water conditions at near sea level but Westchase oaks, 17 feet above sea level, were dying due to their proximity to ground water.

Stewart offered no answer. Later, Mays stated there were fewer problems in Hyde Park because the area the oaks were planted in between the sidewalk and streets were bigger than the Westchase’s rights of way.

Further, when resident Bob Argus later asked Woods what the typical depth of tree root systems was, Woods acknowledged the majority of mature Florida trees’ roots are within 24 inches of the ground surface.

Chesney acknowledged supervisors were aware that some oak street trees would need to be pulled and replaced for various reasons, including possible overcrowding, but the district needed rules and guidelines for both tree density and appropriate replacements. He again cited CDD staff’s decision to replace an oak tree in Wakesbridge, whose streets are only planted with oaks, with a palm. “A palm tree in my neighborhood does not go. None of my neighbors think it belongs.”

CDD Supervisor Forest Baumhover, however, again pressed the question of whether the street trees belonged to the homeowners rather than the county or district. Stewart, however, stated that the county right of way—an area that includes the sidewalks and the strip of grass between the sidewalk and road—was owned by the county in Westchase; inside gated neighborhoods, the area is owned by the CDD or a subassociation.

Baumhover, however asked why residents couldn’t just remove street trees if they get a county permit for their removal.

Citing the CDD’s traditional role in maintaining Westchase’s street trees, Chesney responded, “The CDD went ahead and planted all the trees.”

Baumhover again, however, asked whether residents could simply remove and change the trees since the CDD doesn’t own the right-of-way.

CDD Attorney Erin McCormick, however, said it could be problematic for homeowners to remove trees because they don’t own them.

WOW’s reporter inquired if there was anything that would stop the CDD from going in and replacing a street tree a homeowner planted since the homeowners also don’t own the right of way.

“There does need to be clarity,” Ross said, arguing that it could be provided by the HOA in its rules about what homeowners may or may not do.

Addressing Baumhover’s push for residents’ ability to make decisions regarding street trees, Chesney cautioned that before he went too far, it was important to remember that the CDD has multiple agreements with the county for maintenance of parks and rights of way. Chesney added that while it may not have a formal agreement with the county for street trees, the district has planted and maintained them since the founding of the community. “What the county has allowed us to do is maintain the common areas,” he said.

When Baumhover stated the situation was a source of possible confusion, Chesney disagreed. “I don’t think there will be a lot of confusion.”

Mills added that what the board was looking for were professional recommendations regarding what trees would complement each other and not be in conflict. “If there is one palm among 50 oaks, is that the right tree for that community?” he posed. He added the problem went both ways. Citing the neighborhoods of Brentford and Harbor Links, whose street trees are all palms. “What if a resident of Brentford or Harbor Links wants to plant an oak?”

Stewart said it was the ultimate goal to come up with the recommendations.

When Supervisor Matt Lewis asked how long a street tree plan would take to develop, Stewart initially responded many months before saying six months, a timeframe that did not sit well with some supervisors and which conflicted with Steele’s original estimate of two months.

Circling back to Nealon’s request to replace the oaks he had already received permits to remove, supervisors passed a motion, 5-0, to amend the previous street tree removal moratorium to allow the removal of trees that residents had already pulled permits for prior to the district’s moratorium. They instructed staff to not plant replacements until the completion of the street tree plan but merely sod the areas.

Supervisor Matt Lewis then briefed supervisors on his work with Vertex, a cell tower construction and leasing company, regarding a proposed cell tower on a portion of Glencliff Park’s southern parking lot to enhance cell service to Westchase’s western villages. Lewis stated that the smallest possible footprint was 2,100 square feet and that a 30’x70’ foot parcel running vertically on the eastern edge of the lot would have the least impact. Lewis stated that Vertex committed to mitigating some of the loss of parking spaces by enlarging the northern parking lot. He added that there were a number of items CDD Attorney Erin McCormick had flagged within the leasing contract but supervisors authorized McCormick to begin contract negotiations with Vertex based on the location and asked that any remaining issues be brought for discussion to the next CDD workshop, on Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. at the Maureen Gauzza Library.

At the meeting’s conclusion, Supervisor Brian Ross addressed the CDD Engineering contract. (The engineer had departed the meeting after discussing the street tree memo.) “I’d like us to bid out our engineering services.” Ross added, “I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was very unhappy with our engineer.”

After briefly discussing the bid process with District Manager Andy Mendenhall and CDD Attorney Erin McCormick and hearing no opposition from other supervisors, Ross stated they could discuss the proposal further at the district’s upcoming workshop and move forward with the bid process in March. 

In other actions:

After discussing the long-term advantages of not rescinding their letter of intent to purchase the Westchase Golf Course, supervisors voted 5-0 to rescind their January motion instructing their attorney to send a new letter terminating the letter of intent. That action will leave the letter of intent in place.

Supervisors approved Irish 31’s use of the Montague Street green for the restaurant’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party.

Field Manager Doug Mays stated he was treating a large district pond adjacent to West Lake Townhomes for midge flies that were breeding in its cattails. He added that the district’s aquatics company, A&B Aquatics, was cited for not first pulling a permit for the cattail removal. Stipulating the company should be familiar with regulations and a violation should not happen again, supervisors asked Mays to convey their unhappiness with A&B Aquatics for not complying with the law. Supervisors also committed to the Townhomes HOA President Robert Drummer that they would review the property line between the CDD owned lake and the townhomes to better understand where district responsibilities and cutback enforcement ended.

After CDD Office Manager Sonny Whyte said there were no common areas big enough to accommodate the items, supervisors took no action on a request from the Harbor Links/The Estates voting member to install garbage cans and pet waste bag dispensers in the neighborhood.

CDD Field Manager Doug Mays informed supervisors that the district had to replace about 1,000 annuals that had been eaten by deer in the district flowerbeds along Countryway Boulevard.

After lengthy discussion about the best way of determining which streetlights the district was responsible for in Westchase, supervisors once again indicated support for hiring a utility audit company to review TECO’s billing records and provide a report that delineates what lights the district owns. Under the agreement, the company would be entitled to 50 percent of any TECO refund. In addition, supervisors directed staff to acquire all contracts TECO has on record regarding the district’s streetlight responsibilities.

Citing the dropping costs of 401K managed plans and the greater flexibility they will give the district and its employees, Supervisor Chesney suggested they explore changing the retirement plan for the CDD’s four employees. Supervisors gave him authorization to acquire proposals for plans.

Supervisors adjourned at 6:39 p.m.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

Editor's note: The above article was corrected after its posting when Supervisor Chesney pointed out that a digit had been left out of the fund balance number. The amount listed above has been corrected.

Posted Feb. 7, 2019

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