Trees cleared for condos irks some


A bulldozer moves sand on the construction site where the new Cottage Grove condominium complex will stand.

BRANDON KRUSE/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

The clearing of trees for the new Cottage Grove development on SW 13th Street has some area residents calling for stronger ordinances to protect against anything like it happening again.

Meanwhile, county officials said they are concerned about the future health of the remaining trees and acknowledge that improved planning and review of projects may be needed on future projects.

"People are really angry about it," said Kate Lee, who lives in the nearby Idylwild neighborhood. "Obviously, the next step is that we need to get some rules changed because this obviously isn't any good. We somehow have to get things changed so this can't happen."

Alachua County Principal Planner Steve Lachnicht said the Cottage Grove plans that were approved allowed the cutting.

Of concern now, Lachnicht said, is whether the trees that were left standing will withstand having roads, buildings and parking lots on top of their roots.

"There is a concern that some of the trees that are being saved on the site are not being protected to the extent that they should be to best maintain them," Lachnicht said. "They are being protected according to the plan, but the plan didn't leave enough room necessarily for the roots and those types of things."

Cottage Grove, located on SW 13th Street, south of Williston Road, will have about 80 residential units on almost 22 acres. It will be a student-oriented development.

Much of the property was a pine plantation and has been cleared. A tree and vegetation buffer was left along SW 17th Terrace, a designated county scenic road that requires a buffer. The other trees that were saved are generally live oaks.

The county's comprehensive plan states that trees should be protected in a hierarchy by species. Protection varies according to size, age, condition, historic association and uniqueness. For instance, a large live oak is likely to be protected while a young pine is not.

Champion trees - the largest of the species - cannot be removed.

The land-clearing at Cottage Grove has upset some residents of the nearby Idylwild/Serenola neighborhood, who said that too few trees were protected.

Resident Willa Drummond said at a recent commission meeting that residents were taken by surprise by changes from the original plan that were approved by the county.

"This is an approved development by Alachua County that is a total clear-cut of a piece of property that is between two scenic roads," Drummond said. "Every single piece of tree-covered habitat on that property has changed."

Drummond added, "There are no groves left, incidentally."

Cottage Grove has been in development for several years, and last year changed ownership. County officials said the revised plans were probably not scrutinized as well as they should have been to determine how factors such as the construction of roads and the proximity of buildings and parking lots to the trees could affect the health of the trees.

Officials also said the county previously had only one forest/landscape inspector to review plans and evaluate sites. Steve Kabat has since joined the staff and is working on the Cottage Grove project.

Kabat said the density of development on the site in terms of buildings, parking lots, roads and stormwater drainage could result in damage to the root structure of the remaining trees. He added more than 300 new trees will be planted at Cottage Grove.

"The trees that are being preserved are crammed in among the buildings. The roots of these trees can go out horizontally three times or greater the canopy of the tree, so it's not an ideal situation," Kabat said. "For the tree, having a building or a parking lot impacting most of its root system is not the best. When you are going to be cutting a road and putting it three feet below grade, most of these roots are within the top two or three feet of the surface."

Cottage Grove is being developed by Capstone Companies of Birmingham, Ala. It has built student-oriented complexes near major colleges nationwide including the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, Florida State University and Louisiana State University.

Senior Vice President Ben Walker said Alachua County's development regulations are among the toughest faced by the company.

"We develop all over the country and this was a very stringent site plan approval process which took a year or year and a half to get done. We did work with the county and we certainly didn't try to sneak anything by," Walker said. "The site is 21 acres and we are only putting 84 units on there. We worked with the arborists on what trees to save. We want to save as many as we can, but we still have to develop a project."

The Cottage Grove development is just the latest building project to cause a public stir because of trees that were cut down. A few years ago, the construction of a new Publix plaza on the northern edge of Haile Plantation created an outcry in part because of the tree removal.

Kabat and Lachnicht said stronger restrictions in the county's land-development code could lead to greater protection for the tree canopy.

Some of the wording of the code is "waffle language" rather than definitive black-and-white terms that are easier to defend, Kabat added.

"The public kind of drives this. If the public doesn't like how development is occurring, people can initiate changes," Kabat said.

Lachnicht said having Kabat will also help through better review of plans.

"We brought on a second arborist and that will give us the manpower to look at some of these things," Lachnicht said. "Today we have a higher awareness because of that. It was unreasonable to expect one arborist to cover the county in terms of every tree removal, permit and plan review."

Cindy Swirko can be reached at 352-374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.

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