Home / Events / Baranoff oak lighting draws backlash for Smart Growth group

Baranoff oak lighting draws backlash for Smart Growth group

An effort to illuminate the historic Baranoff oak tree in downtown Safety Harbor has already been met with backlash for the local Smart Growth group.
An effort to illuminate the historic Baranoff oak tree in downtown Safety Harbor was immediately met with backlash for the local Smart Growth group.

What started out as a simple idea to showcase the historic Baranoff oak tree, and possibly earn some goodwill in the community, has resulted in more backlash for the embattled Smart Growth Safety Harbor group.

Organizers for the group, which is based on a national initiative to promote walkable, vibrant downtowns in communities across the country, hoped that purchasing and installing new lights would not only showcase the historic oak, considered to be the oldest such tree in the county, but also help bridge the wide chasm that was revealed between SGSH advocates and their detractors at the most recent City Commission meeting.

But with a crowd of roughly two dozen on hand on Third Friday to witness the unofficial yet city sanctioned event, no sooner had the 300+-year-old oak been uplit by six low wattage LED lamps, the outcry that the lights could be destroying the iconic tree began.

Laura Dent holding her "save the trees" sign on Bayshore Boulevard in 2014. Credit: Dave Hutchinson
Laura Dent holds a “save the trees” sign on Bayshore Boulevard in 2014. Credit: Dave Hutchinson

“Not good for the tree,” Laura Dent, an outspoken Safety Harbor resident and founder of ghost and history tours in town, commented on a photo on the group’s Facebook page.

“Please do your homework on artificial lighting on this type of oak,” she continued. “Unhealthy for the trees. Scientists have proven. I will report to commissioners and mayor. Was this voted on?”

According to SGSH founders Kevin LaBrie and Victor Curti, their plan was approved by city officials.

“It was approved by the city, or it never would have been considered,” they replied to the comment.

Indeed a quick check with the city revealed officials have been aware of the group’s plan since being approached by LaBrie and Curti last month.

“Kevin and Vic met with me in July and said they wanted to purchase new lights for the tree and did we have a problem with that,” City Manager Matt Spoor said on Monday, adding they have received numerous complaints about the issue since Friday.

“I told them we normally don’t say no to citizens who want to donate to the city, as long as it’s within reason.”

Smart Growth Safety Harbor recently helped shine more light on the historic Baranoff oak tree.
Smart Growth Safety Harbor recently helped shine more light on the city’s historic Baranoff oak tree.

Spoor said they then consulted with city arborist Art Finn, who said the lights would not cause any damage to the great oak.

“After I met with them, I asked Art if there would be any negative affect to to tree, and he said no,” Spoor said. “He said there’s only an issue if you wrap lights around the tree, because it can strangle them.”

City staff then removed the old spotlights and set up the wiring for the new LEDs, and the Smart Growth group was given permission to host the lighting ceremony.

“We didn’t see it as a city event,” Spoor said. “But they’re gathering in a public space, they’re donating the lights to the city, and it’s their Constitutional right to assemble, so we said fine.”

LaBrie said they used low-impact LEDs that are lower wattage equivalent (60w) than the spotlights being utilized by the city. The lights are on photocells and will only run for a few hours per night.

“It’s a symbol of Safety Harbor, and we were always curious why is was not lighted more,” LaBrie said, noting the city had been planning to replace the two existing spotlights in the near future.

“We believe the tree needs to have more focus on it to help celebrate it.”

Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold (center) speaks with Kevin LaBrie (l) and Vic Curti (r) following a recent commission meeting.
Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold (center) speaks with Kevin LaBrie (l) and Vic Curti (r) after the August 15 City Commission meeting.

But before the warm glow from their efforts to bring attention to what has largely been on overlooked landmark in town had worn off, he and Curti were lamenting the overwhelming negativity the group has encountered from some residents, and even officials, in the city.

“This is above and beyond what we ever expected when we started this,” Curti said from the Baranoff site in front of the Safety Harbor Public Library on Friday.

“I mean we’re not getting anything out of this, contrary to public opinion. But the backlash has been much more harsh and nasty and intense than we ever envisioned.”

“Nothing about what we’re doing is anti-tree,” LaBrie said. “We have 21 protected trees on our property, and we were the first ones to get a permit under the new tree ordinance.”

“We’re trying to show there is common ground if you look,” Curti added. “There is common ground. Unfortunately some people are unwilling to meet us there.”

The pair said despite the recent setbacks, they are going to meet with city officials in the near future to answer questions about the organization and to develop a plan of action moving forward.

“We came here because we believe Safety Harbor has the perfect structure for a vibrant, walkable downtown,” Curti said. “It could be the best in Tampa Bay with the right vision and the commitment to making it work.”

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  1. I’m confused by Laura Dent’s statement.

    My quick web search stated that there are some trees harmed by artificial light. A Purdue study did an evaluation and there are a number listed as high impact, but none are oak trees. Intermediate impact oaks include White oak and Red oak both of which grow mostly in the northern US. The Live oak doesn’t even make the low impact list.

    More interesting is the fact that high blue/low red (which speaks to most LED lighting) has very low impact on trees anyway. And LED lighting is most efficient of the lighting in terms of energy consumption.

  2. So I am trying to figure out which pare of hip boots I like. I found these amazing boots that go past my knees but unfortunately the ones I think I am going to have to end up with are the fishing ones that go up to the hip because the “you know what” is getting really deep in good ole Safety Harbor. I do not see anyone hollering, screaming, sending letters to the mayor, berating others or freaking out about the beautiful and very lit tee at Lovers Oak Condos. I can not believe the lengths that some people go to in order to scare and bully a community in to believing what they want. So sad. It must be pretty tough to be so angry at everything all the time. I bet the only reason these people are mad at the tree lighting is because they did not think of it themselves.

    • Late night sorry about the misspelling of pare-should have be pair. I know there are those that will call me out on that so there goes…..

    • Natalie, add the trees that are lit up in front of the Safety Harbor Museum. They are beautiful. Just shows that the complaint is not about lighting being harmful to the Baranoff Tree, the complaint is that Smart Growth sponsored the lighting.

      • Desanya

        How about the tree that has wrapped lights at the Safety Harbor sign on Main and McMullen Booth? Well she has had her 15 minutes of fame. Guess it is time to not give any merit to someone who is just trying to over reach.

  3. The more I think about it, the more flabbergasting Laura Dent’s comment becomes. Laura, I’d say that the ridiculousness of the statement costs you all creditability, but then I actually realize that’s really how your cult thinks: You really do want to turn out the lights on Safety Harbor.
    Come on, normal neighbors: Is this the thinking you really want to follow into the future?

  4. If lighting is so harmful to the trees then you better contact Duke Energy tomorrow and demand all street lights be removed.

  5. Let’s remember that in a city of 17,000 people, every decision and every event will always have at least a handful of people who are outraged by it. We have enough legitimate issues with real disagreements to work though as it is, let’s not get distracted thinking something which 99%+ of us agree is an issue.

    Nice tree. Nice lights. Moving on…

  6. Sounds like a beautiful way to showcase that tree. Paducah Ky lights up all their dogwood trees in the spring. You can drive the dogwood trail. It is beautiful!

  7. Laura Dent must get really triggered when they put the Christmas lights up and down Main Street in December.

    I imagine her huddled in a dark closet, knees pulled tightly against her chest just shivering and mumbling to herself.

    “The lights….the trees…the lights….”

  8. For some people, when they cannot use logic and fact to support their cause, the only thing they know is to attack others with hyperebolt .
    Logical, open-minded citizens are going to have one reaction to Laura Dent’s ranting: “OMG, you gotta be kidding me.”
    If this is the enlightened thinking that comes from those who want to save Safety Harbor, then I’m siding with the other guys.

  9. It’s interesting to note that the very first opposing comment was made 3 minutes after the posting of the announcement… Perception is she was lying in ambush… Bullies do this… Rather than the childish tattling threat, she could have constructive with her comments and stated why she believed it was bad for the tree, but instead, opted for more destuctive comments… And when called out on this, suddenly painted herself as the bullied…

  10. Wonderful reporting, again, thanks to Jeff R.
    It really is such a shame that the “oposition” won’t agree to sit and talk peaceably with, and in order to understand, the Smart Growth folks regarding their position better, and possibly come to find a middle ground in which everyone from both sides might find some measure of satisfaction and hope for Safety Harbor’s future. The offer has been extended repeatedly, but they ignore, and continue to berate Smart Growth and it’s principles, in misguided (and often, childish) ways.
    The amount of anger and bitterness in this small town is more than I ever encountered in 20 years of New York City living.

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