St. Anthony officials comply with first deadline of tree, shrub planting

July 21, 2018 GMT

Officials at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church have complied with the first deadline for planting of new trees and shrubs at the church’s campus in The Woodlands, officials with the township confirmed on Thursday, July 19.

Both Walter Lisiewski, chairman of The Woodlands Development Standards Committee, and attorney Bret Strong, who represents both the township and the DSC, verified church officials had met the first deadline imposed by the DSC in early June to plant more trees and shrubs around the church property.

“The township continues to work with St. Anthony on implementation (of the DSC mandate),” Strong said in an email to The Villager. “No current delinquency to the first planting date has been noted, although (the issue is) under review and discussion. Additional plantings are required at a later date according to the DSC’s action and we will continue to monitor progress.”

Lisiewski said on Thursday, July 19, that to his knowledge, church officials had complied with the first mandated round of planting, but added that township staff from the DSC would be visiting the property sometime on July 20 or afterward to assess progress.

St. Anthony officials are following plan

The church was given the mandate on planting by the DSC in early June, details of which included specific guidelines on what types of trees and shrubs to plant, as well as deadlines and other specifications designed to help the plants survive and thrive.

The DSC mandate included the planting of six loblolly pines of 18-feet in height at time of planting, installed by hand, to be planted along with no less than 21 wax myrtles of 15-gallon size and at least 6-feet tall be planted no later than June 29 and finished by July 13, 2018, near the church’s sports fields.

Stephen Lenahan, director of communications and development for St. Anthony, said church officials worked hard to meet the first timing deadline and planting requirements of the mandate, hiring outside landscapers to plant numerous wax myrtles near the church’s athletics fields. He would not disclose how much the church paid for the planting, but in previous statements the church’s former attorney — Michael Starzyk — said in earlier meetings indicated that the planting would possibly cost the church more than $10,000 and even as much as $20,000.

Lenahan said the plan agreed to with the DSC was a two-part plan.

“The first part of that plan was to plant wax myrtles on the edge of the football field by the St. Theresa center, with the idea behind that to mitigate headlights from going across the field (into people’s homes),” Lenahan said. “We did all that, for part one, which was 21 wax myrtles. The reason it was split into two parts was because of the weather. Part two, which is out on the property line by the by the neighbors.”

The trees planted in the second round mandated by the DSC include the planting of 20 loblolly pines, 18-foot tall at time of installation, as well as nine 45-gallow wax myrtles of 10 to 12 feet tall at time of planting that should be planted after Sept. 15, 2018, and no later than Oct. 1, 2018. An irrigation plan was also requested to ensure trees survive.

Church wants to move forward

The DSC mandate was the result of nearly two-years of tensions between neighbors in the nearby residential community of Laurelhurst that began in the spring of 2016 when an expansion plan for St. Anthony started. Among the improvements and additions to the church grounds were more parking spaces, a community-like center with the food pantry and various athletics fields.

When trees were cleared by construction workers, many neighbors protested the situation, lodging complaints with the township DSC claiming a forest buffer that is reportedly mandated between the church and the residents had been improperly cleared. The cutting down of the trees was labeled by residents as “illegal,” a term Lenahan said is not correct.

“The main kind of concern has been over the fact that the picture that has been painted is that we illegally cut down trees. Which we did not do,” Lenahan said. “Everything we did on our property was submitted and received prior approval from the DSC. Now, whether there was discrepancy after the fact, I don’t know, because cutting trees (down) is cutting trees.”

Lenahan said all the trees and shrubs that were cleared in the 2016 construction were located on property clearly owned by the church, something he said is not in dispute.

“Obviously there has been debate over whether it was done the way it was approved or not. In terms of the church doing something illegal, that’d never been the case,” he added. “We have always submitted things before doing them. We’ve never cut anything down that did not belong to St. Anthony. From the start of this, there were people in Laurelhurst against any sort of development. From the day that we started clearing trees, there were people protesting that day without even seeing what we were doing.”

The church’s expansion project is part a larger $22 million construction project called “The Greater Glory of God” plan, which was designed to help the church accommodate a growing base of worshipers. St. Anthony was founded in 1998, starting in a gym at Oak Ridge High School with slightly more than 200 families. Now, the church has an estimated 7,000 families, Lenahan noted.

Lenahan said he and other church leaders do not harbor any ill will toward residents in the Laurelhurst because of the dispute that has gone on since the first round of construction in 2016.

“We’re not trying to be bad neighbors in any sort of way, we’re just trying to practice our faith and worship and sometimes that requires a few more facilities,” he said. “We honor their right to protest, that’s what it means to live in a free country.”

Church leaders now want to move forward with their mission, Lenahan said, which is helping the community through nearly 100 different support ministries, donating food to the needy through their food pantry, or helping others during disasters like Hurricane Harvy — a response from the church that has been lauded in charitable circles recently.

“Not only are we a church, we are a Christian church. We try our best to be good neighbors, but we know we’re not perfect. We’re disppointed in that the relationship at some point has become strenuous. We’re not out to antagonize. It’s been difficult,” he said. “We just know this is the reality of sometimes your neighbors aren’t going to get along with you. How to we best negotiate and come to the table peacefully has been our aim in all these things. We don’t hold grudges, even if we feel like things have been misspoken. We just want to move forward and serve the community without hurting other people in the process.”