By Henry Fitzgerald
Several Boca Raton property owners are complaining that the Lake Worth Drainage District is improperly planning to cut trees, shrubbery and other vegetation from their backyards abutting a lake.
“They’re going to take out everything up to 6 feet from the back of my house,” said Mike Jurus, who lives in the 1000 block of Southwest Seventh Street in Boca Square on Sabal Palm Lake. He said he and other families along the lake are fighting the district. “The Lake Worth Drainage District is in charge of canals, but we live on a lake. They don’t have the right to come on our property and do this work.”
But the LWDD says legally, the district owns a portion of the property along the lake and it has the right — and the obligation — to keep the area surrounding the lake clear of vegetation that could clog local waterways and inhibit drainage during hurricanes or other storms that bring lots of rain.
“There is a misconception from people that they own all of the property along lakes and canals in their backyards, but we own the rights of way in the district to that property,” said Tommy Strowd, an LWDD engineer and director of operations and maintenance. “We’re obligated to protect the public from flooding. Our goal isn’t to be bad neighbors.”
Jurus said his wife was enjoying their backyard a few weeks ago when workers from the district came onto their property and began marking vegetation to be removed.
“We didn’t know anything, but they came and started using stakes and markers,” he said. “We have otters back there and all kinds of wading birds. We’re doing everything we can to save our beautiful piece of property.”
Strowd said about five years ago the LWDD did an assessment along its 500 miles of property abutting the lakes and canals in Palm Beach County. The idea was to determine how much vegetation along the banks could fall into waterways during storms — especially hurricanes — and block drains.
After the assessment, the district in 2014 began the years-long program to cut back vegetation, which in most cases is invasive species such as Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, not palm trees or oak trees native to South Florida, Strowd said. He added that district staffers started with the areas where they saw the greatest risk and they’re about halfway done.
He also said they sent two notices to homeowners, one by mail and the other where they put a handbill on each door alerting affected residents in Boca Square that work there along the lake and the connecting L-49 canal would start June 4.
After Hurricane Irma in September, the district was forced to respond to 500 instances of downed trees in canals and waterways, or one tree for every mile of property it owns, Strowd said.
The district covers 200 square miles bordered roughly from Okeechobee Boulevard south to the Hillsboro Canal at the county line, and Interstate 95 west to the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
“Some people say, ‘Well, we haven’t seen you guys come around for 20 years,’ and that may be true,” Strowd said. “But our work ensures a value that people take for granted: that this is necessary to prevent flooding.”