George Wilkens, Tribune Staff – reprinted with permission from the Tampa Tribune.
Working behind the scenes since the flap arose in January, Lutz residents, civic groups and State Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, lined up a corporate sponsor to maintain the ornamental plantings, which Hillsborough County labeled a luxury it could no longer afford.
“Everyone stepped up to the plate,” said Mike White, president of the Lutz Citizens Coalition, one of several groups that got involved when word of the planned removal became public on Jan. 12. “The coalition has been working very closely with the senator’s office. The goal has been reached, the medians are saved.”
Hillsborough County officials called a meeting on Jan. 24 to discuss the plan to remove some 80 trees from the U.S. 41 median, from the North Florida Avenue apex to the Pasco County line.
“We thought that if government couldn’t come up with a solution, maybe the private sector could.” Legg said. “One of the first things we saw was there was a large Walmart here on the road. So we called some of the folks we knew at Walmart and said it would be a good civic duty if you could consider sponsoring this for a couple years and give us time to come up with a long-term solution.”
“They were very quick to say yes,” Legg said of Walmart. “It took a little while to get the logistics worked out.”
That partnership includes Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, which has experience and insurance for such roadside projects. The agency’s executive president, Debra Evenson, and its community education liaison, Patricia DePlasco, joined White, Legg and others for the Sept. 30 check presentation at the Lutz Walmart Supercenter, 1575 Land O’Lakes Blvd., near the north end of the landscaped median. The nonprofit environmental service organization, a Keep America Beautiful affiliate, will administer Walmart’s $5,000 donation for median maintenance to be contracted through competitive bidding.
When residents learned of plans to remove crape myrtles, oaks, shrubs and decorative grasses in the median, county commissioners were barraged by e-mail and phone calls. The resulting meeting to discuss alternatives drew 200 people to the Lutz Community Center. The county agreed to leave the landscaping in place while exploring solutions through corporate sponsors, nonprofits, volunteer groups and civic associations.
The Florida Department of Transportation installed the landscaping years ago. After the state determined it could not afford upkeep, the county assumed maintenance. A commercial landscaper began providing free maintenance for the median about five years ago, but stopped in 2012, according to the county. Before the state would re-assume responsibility of a median, the county was required to remove trees and shrubs and plant Bahia sod, which led to the county’s controversial plan.