By B.C. Manion
Hillsborough County is amping up its communication efforts regarding trees in the median of US 41, which runs through Lutz.
Residents turned out in force to a Jan. 24 meeting to raise objections when it appeared that the county would be cutting down dozens of trees in the median without any prior discussions with residents.
At that meeting, representatives from the county pledged to improve communications and work with residents to find solutions.
The county has followed through on that pledge. It has set up a website focusing on that issue.
It also recently sent out an electronic newsletter to those who signed in at the community meeting.
The website is intended to keep people in the loop on the issue, and the newsletter addresses questions raised during the community forum.
“This newsletter is written to respond to the questions and concerns raised at that meeting in an effort to provide answers to and strengthen our relationship with the Lutz community,” the newsletter states.
“Specifically, Hillsborough County staff, FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) and community representatives have agreed to work together to find ways to provide continued enhanced landscape maintenance for the medians that were the subject of our meeting.
“Until solutions are found, no trees or vegetation will be removed,” the newsletter states.
Lutz resident Donald Hassinger said increasing communications is a good move.
“We weren’t informed. Those trees were coming down,” Hassinger said, but he and others raised objections and the county opted to have the community meeting instead.
Mike White, founder and president of the Lutz Citizen Coalition, criticized county officials for failing to communicate with residents. He also stated that residents do not trust the county.
White had not seen the electronic newsletter, but said he welcomes an increase in communications.
The newsletter the county sent out provides questions and answers based on queries posed at the community meeting.
An excerpt of that Q & A is presented here:
Q. Why are trees in the US Hwy. 41 medians proposed to be cut?
A. As a condition of the maintenance agreement with FDOT to maintain the right-of-way next to US 41, Hillsborough County is contractually obligated to maintain the trees and groundcover in accordance with FDOT specifications.
In the absence of a third party landscape maintenance provider, Hillsborough County initiated the process of returning the right-of-way maintenance back to FDOT. In order to do this, FDOT directed Hillsborough County to remove some of the trees, groundcover and vegetation.
Q. How many trees are proposed for removal?
A. Of the 135 trees within the maintenance area, 91 are designated for removal, including 64 crape myrtle, 14 wax myrtle, seven live oaks, three Shumard oaks and three red
Q. Why were some trees designated for removal on US 41 and others not? Was it based on location?
A. To transfer the median landscaping back to the FDOT, Hillsborough County was directed to remove designated trees based on long-term maintenance needs and state safety criteria. Removal designation was based solely on type of tree material and condition, not location.
Q. How do we know what trees are proposed to be removed?
A. Trees marked with orange spray paint are designated for removal if the medians are transferred back the FDOT. Trees with colored ribbon will remain.
Q. How much maintenance is required for the crape myrtles?
A. Maintenance for crape myrtles typically includes trimming of trunk suckers and their canopy. This generally consists of keeping a clear area eight feet from the median to the bottom of any tree canopy.
To maintain the trees in accordance with state safety criteria, records indicate an annual cost of approximately $15,000.
The newsletter also addresses a question posed by Jan Smith, who has been active in Lutz issues for decades. She wanted to know who selected the trees that were placed in the median.
County records suggest the trees were installed during the widening of US 41 in the 1990s and were paid for through FDOT’s landscape reimbursement program. The trees planted were selected by FDOT, the county and Lutz residents, the newsletter states.
The newsletter also notes that the county never intended to pay for maintenance of the medians, but instead planned to rely on a third party to complete the work.
That never materialized, and the county historically has spent about $15,000 for tree maintenance and a third party has provided mowing at no cost to the county.
Speakers at the community meeting also wanted to know if a partnership could be created with FDOT to close off lanes so volunteers could maintain the landscape.
The county has pledged to explore all options and plans to discuss them at the next public meeting in mid-March.
For more information, visit www.hillsboroughcounty.org/us41medians/.