Clearwater's plan to take down trees at park stirs up emotions

Crest Lake neighborhood residents listen as city officials describe the process for thinning trees at Crest Lake Park.

CLEARWATER — Depending upon whom one asks, the city’s plan to cut down more than 100 trees in Crest Lake Park is a drastic mistake or necessary to create a better, safer park.

The city park, near Gulf to Bay and South Highland Avenue, should begin construction after the City Council approves the project in January 2020. The $6.4 million for the park’s rejuvenation comes from money awarded to the city in the wake of the BP oil spill, officially known as the Deepwater Horizon Economic & Property Damages Settlement.

The park is popular with the Crest Lake neighborhood residents as well as other Clearwater locals who enjoy the lakeside walking path with ducks, herons, egrets, and other water birds populating the lake shoreline. For pet owners, there are three, large fenced dog parks, and there’s a large, manicured lawn under big shade trees for those interested in laying out a picnic blanket or reading a book on a quiet Labor Day weekend afternoon.

There are signs of decay, however. The dock that’s underwater has a nailed board to prevent the public from accessing it. There are trees whose roots are underwater just off the lake’s shoreline; shorter trees in the park are showing decay and some are simply dead.

That lawn will soon be home to picnic pavilions, an event lawn, a chaise bench, and other man-made park features. The Crest Lake Park Master Plan also calls for a boardwalk with three observation decks that overlook the lake, a sand volleyball court, and a new restroom building. Other features include a butterfly garden, an adult exercise area, a splash pad and playground, and a dock for canoes and a kayak launch. The extensive landscaping includes upgrades to lighting, parking, and sidewalks.

So, what’s the problem?

Some park visitors who walk their dogs, birdwatch or just relax in the shade aren’t happy that the master plan calls for the removal of between 100 and 150 of the park’s trees. They made their feelings known during an Aug. 28 neighborhood meeting a few blocks from the recreation area. Art Kader, the assistant director for city’s Parks & Recreation Department, stood next to a large map of the park and fielded questions from worried locals.

Sarah Colon, who has enjoyed the park with her daughter for years, asked about the impact of removing so many trees from the park.

“We love going there, the trees, the beautiful park, all the birds, all the wildlife you see there,” Colon told Kader to a smattering of applause. “What is the environmental impact of taking down large, old-growth trees? It’s the only place in Clearwater where I see a resident roseate spoonbill. What is going to happen to the environment?”

Kader urged residents to put the tree removal into context.

“There are two things that are mixed up here,” Kader began. “One, the project itself is taking out (just) 13 trees, maybe less than that. Other trees are being taken out because they are diseased, they are old, they are rotting, they are unsafe for the citizens of Clearwater who utilize that park.”

Many of the trees slated for removal are smaller, stunted trees like crepe myrtle, he said.

Clearwater city officials say two recent events illustrate how dangerous trees can be. Two days before the Crest Lake meeting, a 21-year-old tree trimmer was killed while cutting down a tree in the 1400 block of Wetherton Way in Dunedin.

In an unrelated incident, the city of Clearwater in August agreed to pay $180,000 to a woman who was in her car when it was hit by a large tree limb. According to Clearwater Police, Milagros Medina had been driving with her grandson on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in May 2017 when an oak tree on city-owned land fell on the passing car. The woman seriously injured her neck and her grandson, who was 8 at the time, suffered minor injuries.

Alan Mayberry, an arborist who helped inventory the Crest Lake Park trees several years ago, told the Beacon that he also graded the health of the trees in the park. He is now an independent consultant.

“When I first worked for the city, I thought my job was to protect trees,” Mayberry told the Crest Lake meeting. “Now I realize my job is to protect people from trees.”

He described for the Beacon how the city determined which trees to take down in Crest Lake Park.

“We prioritize the work when it comes to removing trees,” said Mayberry, who trains professional arborists for certification. “If I inspect a tree and its health is declining, there are basically four choices for removal: immediately, this year, next year, or two years.”

A sick tree may still look healthy to the uninitiated, Mayberry said.

“Not every tree there is about to fail,” he said. “If it has entered its mortality spiral, if a tree starts to die, it loses its defenses. It is no longer manufacturing those compounds to fight off disease and insects. When you see this is happening, that’s a tree that may not need to come out right now, but in the near future. The prudent thing is to do it now.”

The city has been trying to educate residents on why some trees must come down.

‘The city’s goal is to create and maintain a healthy, safe and beautiful tree canopy for our residents,” states a city handout on the Crest Lake Park project. “The trees that will be removed at Crest Lake Park pose a danger to park visitors and could lead to costly lawsuits against the city which will ultimately affect taxpayers. Trees recommended for removal should not be left standing.”

A number of residents said city arborists are doing the right thing.

“If it improves safety, that’s what I want,” said Kathy Risley, who lives near Crest Lake Park.

The Audubon Society walked the park with city arborist Matt Anderson to point out tree cavities and other bird nesting areas. Other naturalists are kicking in with their contributions to protect wildlife in the park. Barbara Walker, the bird of prey manager for the Clearwater Audubon Society, said the organization will install a half-dozen screech owl boxes in the park to replace hollowed out trees and other natural nesting spots for the birds.

“They are part of an Eagle Scout project we did at Moccasin Lake Nature Park,” Walker told the Beacon.

Crest Lake Park, which residents said was once clean enough to swim in the summer, has also suffered urban problems. It was once a gathering spot for people who used the park to drink and drug, one resident said. Clearwater Police subsequently cleared the area and patrols the park to prevent a replay.

One resident worries that the addition of restrooms in Crest Lake Park will draw bad actors after dark.

“I’m happy if the city improves the safety of the park,” Risley said. “It was a very dangerous place.”

The City Council must approve the final plans of the park, which they could do by January 2020, Kader said.

The meeting momentarily dissolved into shouting as one woman stood and interrupted the meeting with a speech. She was warned to sit repeatedly before she complied. She was not a local resident and was asked to leave the meeting.