Delray Beach: Residents rally to preserve trees on historic Swinton

Residents tied black ribbons on about 50 trees along Swinton Avenue to protest proposed changes to the street.

Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

Related Story: Canopy policy in the works for Tree City

By Jane Smith

The fear that Swinton Avenue could lose scores of shade trees to make way for  bike lanes and sidewalks rekindled the spirit of community activism in Delray Beach resident Annette Annechild.

It began last November when she saw a “big truck on my front lawn that busted my bushes.”

She soon learned workers were marking the location of underground utility lines to prepare for a $2.2 million makeover of Swinton Avenue.

Annechild got angry.

She urged her neighbors to attend a gathering at the city library, where an early version of the design was revealed by the Florida Department of Transportation. 

They did not like what they saw.

For the bike lanes, sidewalk and traffic changes, 33 trees would be cut down in the heart of the Old School Square Historic Arts District, which runs on both sides of Swinton Avenue from South 2nd Street to North 4th Street.

Overall, the plan called for the removal of 147 trees from Swinton Avenue between South 10th Street and North 4th Street. Annechild spent about $500 to buy 1,000 yards of black ribbon and 100 small signs that read: “We say ‘NO’ to bike lanes on historic Swinton.” 

“I’m not rich, but I believe in saving trees,” said Annechild, who lives in the 300 block of North Swinton. “It was my Christmas present to myself.”

Soon, the nonprofit Delray Beach Preservation Trust got involved.

Trust members had worked for years to secure national designation of OSSHAD and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.

The trust wrote in late December to the Florida Department of State officer who oversees historic properties, asking what it could do to preserve the tree canopy along Swinton Avenue.

Jason Aldridge, the state’s historic compliance and review supervisor, replied in early January that protocol required FDOT to contact his division, but it had not yet done so. In the meantime, he suggested residents attend any meetings on the project and make their views known.

The push was on.

Residents flooded city commissioners’ email boxes. They used social media to urge preservation of the trees. Trust members bought more signs.

They turned out in droves at a Jan. 15 regular City Commission meeting and a Jan. 22 workshop.

Faced with mounting opposition, state staffers and their design consultant came up with several alternative proposals, including one that spared all the trees on the six-block stretch of Swinton Avenue in the historic district, but city commissioners quickly dismissed all of them. But they still managed to secure a portion of the $2.2 million grant intended to fund the project. The money comes from federal gasoline tax dollars funneled through the county’s Transportation Planning Agency.

Commissioners asked if a portion could be used to repave Swinton Avenue and add sidewalks that meander around the trees on the west side without removing any.

Nick Uhren, the TPA executive director, said it could. Mayor Shelly Petrolia told him, “You deserve a white hat.”   This is the second grassroots campaign for Annechild. More than 13 years ago, she co-founded the website to help preserve the small-town ambience of Delray Beach. 

Beyond the removal of trees, mailboxes and light poles would need to be moved if the state puts bike lanes on Swinton Avenue. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

In the days leading up to the commission meetings, Annechild assembled neighbors and friends to plant the signs and tie the funereal black ribbon around every tree between Northeast Second and Fourth streets.

The City Commission planned to discuss the Swinton Avenue project at its Jan. 22 workshop, but public comment is not allowed at workshops. So the Swinton Avenue tree supporters spoke out at the Jan. 15 regular meeting. Preservation Trust co-president Joy Howell asked the commission “to scrap the plan” and protect the tree canopy.

Another North Swinton resident, Richard Ott, was among those who objected. “I don’t like the FDOT plan,” he said. “You wouldn’t let me put in a racetrack next to my house.”

Even bike enthusiasts were opposed. Jason Bregman, vice chairman of Human Powered Delray, said his group wanted to save the trees. HPD preferred bike lanes on streets like George Bush Boulevard to get cyclists to the beach.

A week later, so many opponents packed the commission chambers that the city’s assistant fire chief was forced to move standing audience members to a nearby room because the chamber exceeded capacity.

Commissioner Bill Bathurst said he would work to create a “historic overlay” for Swinton that could cover the entire avenue from Southeast 10th Street north to the city limit.

Bathurst, a former member of the city’s Historic Preservation Board, said it was important to preserve the fabric of the city’s most historic street, which is home to Old School Square and the Sundy House, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The story of Delray is told along Swinton Avenue,” he   said. 

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