By Mary Thurwachter
To many Hypoluxo Island residents, large old trees are sacred and often played a big part in why they moved there in the first place. When they see an ancient oak tree being cut down to make way for construction, aggravation levels soar.
That’s what happened in early December when trees were bulldozed at 420 and 430 S. Atlantic Drive.
Michelle Donahue saw it happening as she walked her dog one morning.
“I am beyond frustrated,” Donahue, president of the Hypoluxo Island Property Owners Association, wrote on the island’s Facebook page and in an email to residents.
“The properties at 420 and 430 S. Atlantic were sold this year (2018) to Dr. Mujahed Ahmed, who lives at 509 N. Atlantic,” she wrote. Ahmed is building large homes on both properties. One had a small house on it, and the other had been vacant.
“He has cleared native and protected trees by special permit, but the worst of his actions is currently taking place as I write this. The town has granted him a permit to cut down large old trees that are the last reminders of a time when our island was a jungle-like maze of beautiful oak, pine, banyan and sable palms.”
The Coastal Star was unable to reach Ahmed for comment by press time.
Donahue said what she first thought was a cluster of three trees at 430 S. Atlantic, was actually one tree with triple trunks. “I obtained a copy of the tree survey from the town, which indicates it was one tree with a base diameter of 60 inches,” she said. “I estimate the tree was 200 years old, which predates even the pioneers’ arrival.”
Donahue rallied neighbors who appeared at the Dec. 10 Lantana Town Council meeting to ask what could be done to minimize tree loss. Council members were receptive and agreed to investigate measures that could fortify the town’s tree preservation ordinance.
Lantana’s law says that if protected trees must be removed for new construction — and cannot be moved to another location — developers and property owners are required to mitigate the loss by planting specimen trees that number one and a half times the total diameter of the trees being removed. The new plantings should be located on the property where the protected trees were removed.
If trees are removed without town approval, homeowners are fined — although some say the fines, which can amount to thousands of dollars, should be higher.
Media Beverly was one of the islanders who spoke at the council meeting.
“I’m extremely saddened and upset by the lack of interest the town seems to have in helping the residents of Hypoluxo Island preserve our town’s historic gem by allowing some of the oldest and most beautiful canopy trees to be destroyed without a second thought,” she said. “These trees provided shade, kept our streets cooler, filtered pollutants, cut carbon emissions and provided a habitat for many animals that delivered an ongoing and necessary ecological balance to the island.”
Beverly asked council members to read a 2017 story in The Coastal Star that summarizes Delray Beach’s comprehensive ordinance changes and includes trees.
“I’ve lived in Lantana for almost 30 years and on Hypoluxo Island for almost 27 of those,” Beverly said. “Back then, the Audubon Society visited regularly, but I haven’t seen them in years.
“What’s happening here in Lantana, formerly known as a Tree City, is shameful. We simply must find a balanced solution between construction and destruction.”
Town records show that Lantana is and has been a Tree City for 27 consecutive years, as designated by the Arbor Day Foundation.
Council member Lynn Moorhouse expressed his unhappiness with the lack of teeth in the landscape ordinance.
“Everybody knows if you want to get rid of a bunch of large trees, you cut them down on Saturday or Sunday when none of us are around,” he said. “Then you pay the fine, which is nothing. If you really want to clear land, it’s just a little slap on the hand.”
He wanted to know if the town could stop contractors who had repeatedly cut down protected trees by denying them future work in the town. “Can we pull their license for, let’s say, a year?” Moorhouse asked.
Town Attorney Max Lohman said pulling licenses probably wouldn’t work, but there may be other solutions to investigate.
“We can look at code amendments with regard to tree removal and fines can be up to $5,000 per tree,” Lohman said.
Council member Malcolm Balfour, former president of the Lantana Nature Preserve, said some large trees had been moved to make way for construction in the past and were doing pretty well.
“So, it can be done,” he said. “I’m on the tree hugger side of things. I miss the birders.”
Mayor Dave Stewart said the tree situation was a tough one. “You’re looking at two different issues,” he said. “One is about people that live there that are just over-trimming or taking out one or two trees. What has come out tonight is about clearing a lot to put a piece of real estate on the lot that will fit in a better manner. But don’t they have to go back with like or better material? They can’t just plant palm trees.”
David Thatcher, the town’s director of development services, said the mayor was right. “You can’t put in palms for an oak tree,” he said. “You do have to mitigate one and a half times the diameter total of all the trees (removed). One (tree) on one lot was 92 inches total. So, they’re putting in a lot of oak and gumbo limbo. Sometimes they have to choose from specimen trees that we protect. You’ve got to replant those kind of trees.”
Stewart said he didn’t think anyone in the room wanted to see specimen trees go away. “It’s disturbing to hear that a 100-year-old tree ended up being removed,” he said. “But also, I don’t want us to get into a problem with people’s personal property rights. Do we have the right to tell them they can’t remove the tree and can’t build the house they want to build?”
Lohman said the town couldn’t implement a tree protection ordinance that renders a lot unbuildable.
“They have a right to build and that’s why we have the mitigation,” Lohman explained.
Town Manager Deborah Manzo, after a quick read of the story about Delray Beach’s tree ordinance, said it seemed like Delray Beach doesn’t prohibit trees from being removed.
“They put a fee in for removing one of the protected trees. I’m looking for guidance: Is your preference to have a fee put into a town pot of money and then put trees elsewhere? Or should we go ahead similar to what our ordinance has and require them to mitigate on the lot that the tree came out of?”
Council members said they preferred mitigation on the property where the tree or trees were removed.
Donahue, an alternate on the town’s Planning and Zoning Board, said she was pleased with the discussion, but pointed out that, based on the large size of homes being built, there won’t always be enough room on the lot to put in the required number of mitigated trees.
She had another concern, as well.
“It’s not only the ordinances and codes that make a difference, but the passion of the people who execute these policies,” she said. “Bringing people together in a collaborative manner to discuss, educate, and enlighten one another on the impact of such decisions goes a long way.”
She is advocating that the plan review committee consist of citizens from all sectors of the town, as well as having Planning and Zoning Commission members weigh in and participate.
But with all the talk of trees coming down, Donahue offered news of the opposite. She said islanders and other town residents working toward Ocean Avenue beautification would plant 15 oak trees on the avenue on Dec. 17, and they did.
The $5,000 cost of the project was picked up by the presenting sponsor, the Old Key Lime House. Daily watering will be done by the town until roots are established and then an irrigation system will be installed, Donahue said.