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The Oak Tree: Our Beautiful Nemesis

Our live oak trees provide beautiful, leafy green canopies along our streets.

It’s comforting shade. It’s oh-so-Southern. And to many residents, it’s priceless. But there’s definitely a cost.

Back on the drawing board, when Westchase’s and surrounding neighborhoods’ development began in the early 1990s, such beauty was perceived as a huge selling point. Who wouldn’t love a look reminiscent of Savannah, Charleston or New Orleans? For the true locals, it was a nod to Seminole Heights or South Tampa’s Old Hyde Park.

Nearly a quarter-century later, our oak-tree investment sometimes translates into minor annoyances or major headaches caused by the large root systems. This ranges from pushed-up sidewalks, damaged driveways and plumbing issues to an avalanche of pollen and wilting, sun-starved patches of grass.

“It was a really poor decision to use for a street tree,’’ Westchase Community Development District (CDD) Field Manager Doug Mays said. “These are beautiful trees, probably my favorite. But it was still a poor long-term decision for this community.’’

“These oak trees have been around for 400 million years — before dinosaurs and certainly before homeowners associations,’’ said Rob Northrop, an urban forester with the University of Florida’s extension service in Hillsborough County. “You can’t predict their root systems. So Westchase and other communities are going to plant them along the street in the small easements, where they will inevitably interfere with sidewalks, driveways, plumbing and irrigation systems? Really?’’

Really.

Tell it to Mona Henson, a resident of The Bridges, whose driveway has been drastically elevated by the slithering root system of her home’s oak tree, which was planted near the flower bed by a previous owner. Before long, Henson said, her husband’s truck will not be able to fit in the garage without scraping its roof.

“I like trees,’’ Henson said. “But this is becoming a nightmare.’’

Tell it to Susan Rose, president of the Westwood Lakes HOA, which considered installing a root barrier so the rampant oak-tree growth wouldn’t interfere with sidewalks along the Westwood Lakes Boulevard walking path. It was cost prohibitive and there were no guarantees.

“I was riding my bike the other day and thought, ‘Wow, this is really uneven (in assorted places),’’ Rose said. “We have kids riding their bikes or walking to Farnell (Middle School) or Mary Bryant (Elementary School) along this path. This could be a safety hazard. And now with the school cutbacks, they can’t get bus service (to school). You are caught in the middle.

“I think it cuts both ways. People like the look. But when it infringes on your property and life, that becomes the priority.’’

Les Young, a resident of The Fords, once had concerns in his neighborhood over uneven sidewalks, but used a professional service to help level things. His children are now in college and high school, so everyday concerns have been abated, although he remembers a time when “kids were wiping out all the time around here.’’

When Mae Mastrorio and her husband Tony moved into The Fords, they tried to be proactive. Concerned about uneven sidewalks in front of their home, they called the county.

“There were other kids in the neighborhood, but that was back before we had a child,’’ Mastrorio said. “He was just a gleam in our eye, but we were looking ahead.’’

Lincoln Mastrorio is now 2 – and trying to navigate that uneven sidewalk during playtime.
“We called the county back and they said our request is still in there,’’ Mastrorio said. “I do like the shade of our oak tree, but not at the cost of an unsafe sidewalk or other damage.’’

Around The Shires, one of Westchase’s older neighborhoods, streets have mature oak-tree canopies nearly everywhere. During a recent 3-mile walk around the community’s perimeter, from the easternmost point back to Countryway Boulevard, there were nearly 80 sidewalk panels that were cracked or pushed up. In mid-April, though, significant sidewalk repair was done by Hillsborough County in The Shires, following similar work in The Bridges.

Mays said there also are big problems with Cypress trees in The Greens, which has CDD-owned sidewalks.

Mays said Cypress trees are generally used for conservation along a shoreline to prevent erosion. They develop “knees’’ or small roots that grow in knobs and push above the ground, sometimes by the dozen.

“These are trees meant for a backyard, along waterways,’’ Mays said. “But developers in The Greens, for whatever reason, saw them as a street tree. They are the worst choice to plant as a street tree. And we’ve got 160 of them in The Greens.

“Even if you have a nice front yard, sometimes little Joey and little Susie can’t play there because of all those Cypress knees. It’s another huge issue.’’

Oak trees, though, remain a signature feature of Westchase and neighborhoods like Westwood Lakes. They provide shade, scenery and a beautiful backdrop for neighborhood gatherings.

They also create problems.

“I wouldn’t consider this a major problem – yet – but it’s going to be an ongoing issue,’’ Mays said. “This isn’t going away. Trees don’t grow exactly the same. You might not have a problem and the guy next door has all kinds of problems. It might be the same nursery, the same seeds, but a completely different situation. Trees are not an exact science.’’

So considering the logic, why do oak trees continue to have attraction for neighborhoods?

“You really can’t beat the qualities of live oaks,’’ Northrop said. “They are resistant to hurricanes and strong winds. They are incredibly free of insect and disease problems. They are as good for the wildlife as any tree. They are economically suited to the nursery industry. They are native trees and easy to plant.

“These are trees that grow in girth and length. When they grow in girth, they’re powerful enough to take down mountains. We all know that, but we don’t connect with what we’re doing in the neighborhood. We’re setting ourselves up for problems. These are huge trees and it’s not logical to put them in small places.’’

By Joey Johnston

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