Pubdate: Wed, 25 Aug 2004
Source: Fort Pierce Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2004 The E.W. Scripps Co.
Author: Pensacola News Journal


FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla.- Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies think they
have found a solution for getting rid of drug dealers and prostitutes
who congregate under a giant oak tree: chop it down.

The sheriff's office is seeking permission to have the tree removed
from a county right of way on Cypress Street.

"We're not attacking the tree," Deputy Don Hess said. "The tree hasn't
hurt anybody."

But Hess said it provides cover for drug dealers and prostitutes and
their customers. He said 30 to 40 arrests per month stem from criminal
activity at the oak.

So far county officials have stood up for the tree, but that resolve
may be crumbling.

"Why not deal with the people underneath the tree rather than cut down
the tree?" asked Christy Johnson, a senior county planner.

Her department previously has denied requests to remove the oak
because it was considered a beautification asset in a neighborhood
covered by a neighborhood revitalization grant.

The grant, however, has expired, and the county no longer monitors the
neighborhood. Officials would never know if someone removed the tree
unless they received a complaint, Johnson said.

County Manager Chris Holley said he wants both to help the sheriff's
office and protect large oaks.

"We just really want everybody to think through it," he said.

Community activist Audrey Williams said it is unlikely cutting down
the tree will solve the drug problem, but she still wants it gone.

"As long as they can hang out under the tree and do their dirty deeds
we won't get any change," Williams said.

Cypress Street resident Shelby Brown plans to move if the tree

"If there's a fight on this street, that's where it starts," Brown
said. "As long as the tree's there, I'll do it."
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