The Safety Harbor City Commission opted to trim the canopy of the giant Elephant Ear tree and remove similar trees nearby in an effort to extend the 70-year-old tree’s lifespan.
Back in April, we reported on the fate of the Elephant Ear tree, the iconic, 70-year-old giant that towers over the brick sign at the Main Street entryway to Safety Harbor.
According to city officials, the non-native tree lost several large limbs over the past few years, leading seven arborists and tree experts to declare the decaying giant high-risk and a prime candidate for removal.
On Tuesday, June 4, the item came before the Safety Harbor City Commission, with staff asking the commissioners to choose between two options—remove three smaller Elephant Ears in the area and trim the 70-foot tall main tree, at a cost of $5,000; or remove all four Elephant Ears in the area and replace them with one or two new specimen, or large-diameter, trees at an estimated cost of $16,000.
Before deciding on an option, Commissioner Nancy Besore asked arborist Art Finn, “if we go with option one, would you walk under that tree for a year?”
Safety Harbor arborist Art Finn points out the damaged root system of the tree.
“No, I would not,” Finn replied, adding another branch fell from the tree during a recent storm.
Besore then asked if Finn would feel comfortable driving past the site after $5,000 worth of trim work.
“The canopy goes over Main Street about 12 feet, so if the trimming removes those branches, the risk is lessened,” he said.
During the ensuing discussion, it quickly became apparent the five commissioners had one goal in mind — do what’s necessary to save the Elephant Ear tree today and start planning for a future without it.
“I understand the importance of the tree, how valuable it is and what it means to the city,” Commissioner Cliff Merz said. “And I’m of the opinion at this point that…I don’t think the entryway tree needs to come down.”
Commissioner Cliff Merz.
He added, “If you left the top and removed some branches and deadwood and the other trees in the back, that would seem to me to mitigate the risk from walking and driving (under it).”
That opinion was shared by Merz’s four fellow lawmakers, with each conceding the tree is in decline and does present safety and liability concerns, though no one was willing to put the chainsaw to the tree’s massive trunk just yet.
“I’m not a huge fan of non-native trees, but this is a non-native that has value to our community,” Commissioner Andy Zodrow said. “I recognize the liability issues, and that’s why I’m in favor of option one.”
“The tree is alive,” Vice Mayor Carlos Diaz added, “and as long as we can keep it trimmed, I think we should.”
A damaged limb on the Elephant Ear entryway tree.
According to the backup information, Option One includes the following:
- Remove the 3 small Elephant Ear trees. Two of these trees have suffered major branch failures and their canopies are over Main Street. Grind the stumps below ground level except the one by the specimen tree.
- Reduce the canopy of the large Elephant Ear tree to lessen the potential of a large branch failure over Main Street. Remove large deadwood.
- Mulch the area under the tree to prevent further mechanical root damage
- Monitor the tree for health and structure twice a year
- Total cost: $5,000
A look behind the entryway sign reveals split trunks and extensive decay.
The commissioners ultimately said they would like to move forward with option one, but with a couple of changes, including trimming the top canopy overhanging McMullen Booth Road and Main Street and planting three small oaks behind the entryway tree to help fill the void now and provide canopy cover for the future.
City Manager Matt Spoor estimated the cost of the work at around $15,000 and he said it would not begin before the start of the next Fiscal Year on October 1, as there are no funds currently allocated in the budget this year or next.
When asked what the work would mean for the tree, Spoor said, “It will buy us some time. How much time, nobody knows.”
He also cautioned the commissioners and residents to remember the tree’s appearance will change after the work is completed.
“Trimming any tree changes it’s appearance,” Spoor said. “So, I know it will look different.”
After the meeting, Mayor Joe Ayoub spoke about the commission’s decision via email.
Mayor Joe Ayoub.
“We all love our trees here in Safety Harbor so it can be an especially sensitive subject if one is under consideration to be taken down due to its deteriorating health and potential danger to residents,” the mayor wrote.
“Given the high profile of this tree behind the entryway sign it has a lot of visibility and has become a bit of a symbol when entering our city. It looks especially beautiful at night when the lights that are wrapped around it are lit up. So given this it was great to have our tree arborist Alan Mayberry present us with an option to avoid taking it down but rather prune it to hopefully extend its life and prevent it from being a hazard.
“I’m sure many residents will be happy that they will get to continue enjoying the beauty of this tree!”