Let’s be clear: I’m not here to speak on behalf of that giant old oak tree in Gulfport. I have six laurel oaks on the right of way by our home that I can only describe as problematic. If I could afford $14,000 to rip out every last one of them, I would. And I could, because Governor DeSantis changed the laws about trees a few years back. City and county governments can no longer tell a property owner they can’t remove a tree if an arborist says the tree poses a hazard.
But this is not a column about trees.
If you drive down 52nd Street, between 29th and 30th Avenues South, you’ll see a private alley (according to the Ward II councilwoman, the City doesn’t own it) and a vacant lot. Vacant except for a live oak tree, likely a few hundred years old, judging by its size, that takes up most of that lot.
But this is not about that tree.
Over the past four months, the paper’s received more than a few emails and phone calls — and at least one walk-in – about the tree’s fate.
The kerfuffle started when the lot went up for sale in late February. Neighbors and fans of the live oak saw the writing on the wall: Who would buy a lot with a giant tree smack-dab in the center of it simply to preserve the tree? The tree’s days, they feared, were numbered.
Readers asked us to do something to save the tree. The land is privately owned; it went under contract roughly two weeks after it went on the market, and, according to the real estate agent who sold it, as of last month, WinWay Homes owns the lot.
Since their name isn’t “WinWay Preservation,” it seems local fears about them tearing down the tree to build a home are founded.
Again, this is not about trees.
Two weeks ago, I went down to see the tree myself. In addition to cobbling together a newspaper every week, I also serve on the board of the Gulfport Historical Society. One of the tree fans emailed me at GHS to ask if we could help. At this point, only two routes will keep the tree alive exist: Get a conservation group to buy the land, or those who care can buy the land themselves. The State has something called special category grants, and I said I’d approach the board of GHS about applying for one if we could ascertain a few things, namely, that the land was for sale.
That led me to visiting the tree. While visiting – and it’s a lovely tree, old and graceful and large enough that WinWay can probably only build a Port-a-Let there if they want to keep the tree – several neighbors came out to chat. They all had one message: We don’t want a house there. We like the tree.
They also had a question: Would WinWay sell the land instead of building on it?
This really isn’t about trees.
And so I called WinWay’s Matt Carr, who’s always returned my calls before. I left a message, explaining why I wanted to talk to him, and left my number. In the days that followed, I called his cell, too, and texted.
He has yet to return my calls
As I said, I’m not speaking in favor of saving any one tree. This is not about carbon sequestration, tree canopy, or anything like that.
Everyone has a right to do business and make money, and WinWay paid good money for that lot. But the company that occasionally draws letters to the editor and comments from our mayor about their business practices and building styles has a huge opportunity here.
In 1930, the matriarch of the family who built the Brooklyn Bridge donated land for a park. See, the locals wanted the land protected, but the government determined it was too small to make into a park. So Margaret Shippen Roebling bought the land — spending a total of $50,000. Her caveat? Locals had to raise $5,000 — during the Great Depression — to show their commitment.
That piece of land became the cornerstone for Florida’s first state park, Highlands Hammock. Today, it houses the state’s Civilian Conservation Corps Museum and attracts people from all over the country. We remember Roebling as a hero who gave Florida a great gift.
WinWay, you have two choices here.
Which one will you choose?
Want to see the tree?
If you want to find the live oak tree in Gulfport, you can find the lot on the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s website. Search for parcel 33-31-16-63558-000-0040. It’s in a neighborhood known as “Oak Terrace’; its address listed only as 52nd Street South.