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Tampa: Tree Doesn't Stop Condo Plan

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TAMPA - Outrage over the ``butchering'' of a 100-year-old oak tree did not stop plans Thursday for another high-rise condominium downtown.

The Tampa City Council called for an investigation of what happened to the tree developers of Crescent Heights Channelside once agreed to protect.

However, the council still gave preliminary approval to plans for more than 800 condominiums the Miami-based developer proposes beside the tree, across from the St. Pete Times Forum.

``This is one of those blatant butcherings,'' said Councilman John Dingfelder, who cast one of the two votes against the project.

Dingfelder floated the idea of pursuing criminal charges.

``This is one of those classic situations where somebody has done something in the dark of night.''

Other council members said criminal charges went too far and that the development should not be stopped because of damage to the tree.

``I think we are getting out of the purview of what we should be doing,'' Councilwoman Rose Ferlita said. ``Pretty soon we will have ... tree cops out there.''

Channelside Development LLC first planned to remove the towering live oak to make way for condominiums and shops, but city officials instructed them instead to build around the tree, city forester Dave Reilly said.

Reilly noticed the damage when he went to make sure new design plans left enough room for the oak, at the southwest corner of Eunice Avenue and Jefferson Street, north of Channelside Drive.

``When I got out there, about half of the tree was gone,'' Reilly said. ``It will never get back to its full glory.''

With a trunk more than 40 inches in diameter, Reilly said the tree was at least 100 years old and was one of only a dozen trees left downtown considered a ``grand tree'' - which are protected by the city.

City officials consider the tree a total loss and required developers to pay $6,600 for replacement trees. The city code enforcement board could levy a $15,000 fine.

The cutting was a ``mistake'' by the landowners, said consultant John Larocca, who represents the 30-story condominium project. The redesign of the project made the tree the centerpiece of a public courtyard, he said.

``We will do whatever we need to do to make it better,'' Larocca said.

An out-of-town crew brought in by project developers to clean up the site after one of the summer storms ended up cutting the tree, said attorney Truett Gardner, who also represents the project.

Landowners could be punished, as well as the tree trimmer, Dingfelder said.

``The tree company did not come out and do it for free,'' Dingfelder said.

The tree issue surfaced on the same day council members met for about three hours to talk about ways to get tough with city code breakers.

Higher fines for violations such as overgrown lots and junked cars, as well as stepping up efforts to foreclose on land of repeat offenders, were among the options the council discussed.

Reporter Andy Reid can be reached at (813) 259-8409.

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