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Westchase CDD Board Votes to Change Street Tree Program

Citing the increase of Westchase street tree removals in April, Westchase CDD Supervisors voted to change their street tree program at their May 4 meeting.

That meeting also saw supervisors approve the district’s first step at addressing a turkey vulture issue affecting the eastern gated neighborhoods of The Bridges.

The May 4 meeting touched on many of the same issues that supervisors discussed at their April 20 workshop, which saw 18 residents of Stonebridge and Woodbridge attend to request supervisors agree to a contract with the USDA to address the vultures’ roosting spot on an island in a large lake between Stonebridge and Sturbridge. Many described property damage to roofs and lanais at the workshop. Seven residents also showed up at the May meeting to hear supervisors’ formal vote after CDD Attorney Erin McCormick addressed questions Supervisor Brian Ross had about the proposed USDA contract.

CDD Engineer Robert Dvorak, however, started the meeting. Dvorak announced he had hired a wetlands subconsultant and asked if supervisors still wished to delineate wetlands from uplands on land the CDD owns behind the Maureen Gauzza Library – the cite of a proposed second cell tower that’s been dropped from consideration. Supervisors confirmed Dvorak should go forward with the delineation to help identify available land for other recreational uses.

Dvorak also touched on the stop sign at Edgefield and Greenpointe intersection in The Greens and, after answering supervisor questions, the board agreed to simply continue monitoring drivers’ compliance with the sign after removing a tree that was obscuring it.

CDD Attorney Erin McCormick then touched on an issue that saw great discussion at the April 20 workshop. She stated she had spoken with Hillsborough County staff member John Muller, who has informed Chair Matt Lewis and McCormick in a virtual meeting that county staff would not move forward with bringing the Glencliff Park cell tower, proposed for the back of the southern parking lot, to the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners for approval. Instead Muller pitched two different locations, one which affect the park’s basketball courts and one which would sit very close to Glencliff homes, both described as worse, unworkable options by CDD staff and supervisors. McCormick and Lewis also agreed that county staff did not actually offer specifics on why the proposed location was not acceptable. McCormick suggested it was likely due to some Westchase residents’ opposition to the tower.

“How do we resolve this?” observed Supervisor Brian Ross. “I feel like we’re going around in circles and accomplishing nothing.”

McCormick stated a possible way of budging staff was to elicit support from Westchase’s county commissioner and reach out to residents who requested the tower to show county staff that supporters of the tower outnumber its opponents. Ross added that perhaps Lewis could speak to the Glencliff Voting Member and WCA to see if its Government Affairs Committee would address the matter with the county.

“I wholeheartedly agree with Brian’s thoughts,” said Supervisor Forrest Baumhover, who expressed frustration that the matter could be killed by county staff.

McCormick turned to the Cooperative Services Agreement with the USDA, which would have the USDA address the turkey vulture issue, costing up to $2,700 over the next year. The issue and contract were recommended for adoption by the Westchase Community Association (WCA). USDA representative JC Griffin addressed the matter by phone. McCormick stated that the district could do little to address Ross’ concerns about liability from the USDA work falling on the district given federal limitations on suing the federal government.

When McCormick also asked Griffin if the USDA’s efforts to get the birds to abandon their current roosting site on the island lake posed a risk that they would simply relocate to another neighborhood, Griffin responded that the birds were going to go somewhere. “No way to guarantee they’re not going to go a few miles away and find another cypress head in another neighborhood,” he said.

When Baumhover inquired if the lethal removal discussed in the contract would just be limited to the island, Griffin stated it would but that 99 percent of the relocation work would be non-lethal. He stated if the birds refused to leave, the USDA would kill some via pellet gun.

Supervisor Ross expressed concern that two of the proposed relocation methods – the use of fireworks and the pellet gun – were likely violations of the WCA’s deed restrictions. “I would be posing the question to the WCA if they checked with their legal counsel about use of pyrotechnics and pellet guns….my guess is their attorney would apprise them to be very, very cautious,” he said, adding that it could cause residents to argue they can use them within the association’s boundaries. Ross therefore asked that any initial action taken by Griffin be limited to hanging stuffed effigies of the birds, which Griffin described as extremely effective, adding they would likely cause 90 percent of the birds to abandon the roost within a week.

When Supervisor Forrest Baumhover made a motion to accept the contract while encouraging the WCA to check with its attorney before escalating action, it prompted Woodbridge VM Rick Goldstein, who has worked the matter with the association’s Government Affairs Committee, to raise his voice in frustration, stating the WCA’s attorney had no problem with it. Citing the approaching hurricane season, he stated residents couldn’t fix broken lanai screens until the birds were removed. “What if a buzzard gets into lanai and hurts a child or pet?” he said.

Chair Lewis, however, countered, “Rick, what we’re trying to do is take action.” Lewis pointed out that Griffin had stated hanging the buzzard effigies was most the most effective action.

Goldstein responded, “What happens if the effigies don’t work?”

Supervisor Baumhover stated the board could then investigate the issues and change their instructions to Griffin in June. “Our legal counsel is telling us, ‘Here are some concerns,’” he said. “I have to respect that.”

Stonebridge VM Judy Olivieri observed that some of the vultures, which are migratory, had already departed for the summer, and asked who to contact if they come back next winter.

Baumhover pointed out the contract extended an entire year, which would give the district enough time to address any returning birds.

Ultimately, the board indicated that Field Supervisor Doug Mays would serve as residents’ point of contact regarding the issue.

Field Supervisor Doug Mays then turned to street tree matters. He stated a Woodbay resident, citing the district’s paying to remove street trees under their street tree plan, had requested the district reimburse him $880 for the removal of a street tree he paid for. While supervisors declined to approve the request, it caused Supervisors Brian Ross and Greg Chesney to express additional concerns about the recently adopted street tree program.

Results of the CDD’s street tree program, which among other things recently included a 25-year-old live oak being cut down in The Fords and being replaced with a six-foot crepe myrtle–at the expense of the CDD and its taxpayers, led CDD supervisors to review the program and call for changes.

Citing staff’s announcement at the April 20 workshop that homeowners had pulled 20 county permits for street tree removal and had turned them over to the district to pay for the work, Chesney stated, “I think we’ve created an incentive for tree removal in Westchase.” He suggested the board change the policy to stop paying for removal, leaving the cost with homeowners. He observed that one Bridges homeowner received three tree removal permits from the county but only exercised the one the district paid for, leaving a nearby one in his front yard intact.

Westchase street trees in the right of way between the sidewalk and road lie outside homeowners’ property limits. Historically they have been planted and maintained by the CDD. The CDD owns the right of way in gated neighborhoods but Hillsborough County owns it in non-gated neighborhoods. While freely issuing tree removal permits in recent years, the county, however, won’t remove the trees.

“I one hundred percent agree with you,” said Ross.

Chesney and Ross also stated they would like to explore with Hillsborough County ways that the district might undertake sidewalk repairs, removing one incentive for the trees’ removal. Ross added, “I think we should open discussion with WCA to see if they favor these trees or not.” He suggested coordinating with the WCA to determine a joint approach for ensuring the survival of the street tree canopy while addressing problems the trees create. Stating the association is broadly charged with overseeing the appearance of homes and yards, he stated the WCA should also act to preserve the intended appearance of the rights of way.

“I agree there are a lot of things the WCA can do to assist with this tree issue,” responded Chesney.

“In some areas we might not get horses back in the barn,” responded Supervisor Baumhover. He argued that ending the district’s paying for tree removal would just lead to homeowners paying to pull out trees and planting whatever they wanted.

Chesney countered that the district could then go in, remove an incorrect planting, and replace it with an approved one. Often, he added, rather than deal effectively with lawn and sidewalk maintenance issues, homeowners seek to take the easy way out. “Getting rid of the [street tree] canopy will hurt the property values in the neighborhoods that have the canopy,” he said. Citing the district’s historic planting and maintenance of the trees, he added, “It was the intention of this board to create the canopy.”

When Baumhover asked whether removal costs or the trees were behind the board’s motivation for changing the payment policy, Chesney responded, “Protecting the trees.”

Ross added that removing the tree directly impacts the homeowner. “It can lower [home] values $15,000.”

“That bell’s been rung,” responded Baumhover of homeowners pulling trees. “It’s going to continue.”

Ultimately the motion to have the district stop paying for the removal of street trees that residents pull county permits for passed 4-1, with Baumhover opposed.

Ross concluded discussion of the issue by pressing the board to address with Hillsborough County unique ways the district might take over sidewalk replacement without incurring liability. Chair Lewis said he would raise the street tree issue with the WCA president. Supervisor Jim Wimsatt also suggested the association might want to revive their tree and landscaping committee to make recommendations regarding how the association can work with the district to preserve the street tree canopy.

In other actions:

Supervisors voted 4-1, with Supervisor Brian Ross opposed, to approve an Amazon proposal that would allow their drivers to open Westchase neighborhood gates without gate codes by installing cellular devices into the gate systems.

Field Supervisor Doug Mays praised the Greens gatehouse supervisor for spotting a toddler who had gotten out of her home without her parents’ knowing and was able to return her safely. “She knew who the child belonged to,” said Mays. “We’re all ecstatic with Carmen’s professionalism.”

Supervisors voted unanimously to permit WOW to use the Montague Street green for a June food truck gathering that will also feature a DJ.

Supervisors adjourned at 6:07 p.m.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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