Haitian church, activists in battle over rare oaks

For more than a century, a dense grove of oak trees has stood tall, silent and undisturbed as the landscape around it was gradually transformed from rural settlement to urban Miami enclave.

Now, amid the rattling din of earthmovers laying asphalt and the hammering of construction workers, the grove of 122 trees — the kind for which the phrase “majestic oaks’’ was coined — may be gravely imperiled.

The rare oaks sit on the property of Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, the mother church of Miami’s Haitian community, which is building a large new sanctuary on what was previously its parking lot. To accommodate parking, the church and its contractors have laid down asphalt around some 50 of the Quercus virginiana live oaks, which reach up to 50 feet tall.

The work, says a group of activists and environmentalists, is suffocating the oaks’ extensive root system and slowly killing them –– even though the trees are supposed to be protected by Miami city ordinances. The activists say the city may have improperly permitted the parking project and then failed to enforce its own tree-protection rules.

Their efforts to save the trees, though, have become entangled in another difficult issue. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary, has pushed back aggressively, contending the activists, most of whom are white, are motivated by racial animosity. In a recent Sunday sermon, he referred to the activists as “blancs’’ — which can mean “white people’’ or “foreigner’’ in Haitian Creole parlance — and told the congregation that they had tried to stop the church from expanding.

In a brief interview, Jean-Mary said he did not want to get into details, but suggested a member of the activist group had used a racially derogatory term to refer to the congregation. Adding to the tension: The church in Little Haiti sits on prime real estate adjacent to the trendy Design District that developers have expressed interest in acquiring in the past.

“If they are opposing the construction of the church, they are opposing the presence of us here,” Jean-Mary said. “I’ve been praying for them.”

The activists say their only motivation is to protect the trees, which they say are a valuable historic and natural legacy.

“This is sort of our heritage,” said Little Haiti property owner Peter Ehrlich, a longtime neighborhood activist and a former city commission staffer. “We don’t have too many of these groups of hundred-year-old oak trees, and once they’re gone, they’re irreplaceable.”

Jean-Mary, Catholic church officials and their consultants insist they did everything by the book, and that the trees won’t be damaged.

Not so, says Bob Brennan, resident certified arborist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and founder of the Tropical Arborist Guild.

Asphalt and cement contain lime and other materials toxic to trees, and the material is being placed as close as 10 feet to the tree trunks, he said, atop at least a foot of crushed fill, which will cut off air and water to the extensive root systems.

Ehrlich predicts a slow strangulation.

“Some of them won’t die overnight, but they’ll be dying over the next two to five years,” he said.

Brennan said a stand of such size and age, estimated at 100 to 150 years old, is a rarity in South Florida and deserves a better fate.

“For people to treat them with such disdain, I find that offensive,” Brennan said.

Ted Baker, a landscape architect for the city of Miami, said the city protects trees because their importance reaches beyond their history and aesthetic appeal.

The grove of live oaks reduces carbon dioxide while producing oxygen, stabilizes the soil, provides shade for pedestrians and a habitat for wildlife. It also reduces the heat load to surrounding buildings, said Baker, who is not involved in the permitting.

“It’s not just a tree,” Baker said. “It’s a lot more than just a tree.”

Ehrlich and Brennan say the city never should have approved the parking scheme for the church, located at the corner of Northeast 62nd Street and Second Avenue.

It’s unclear whether plan reviewers followed rules designed to protect trees. The reason: The city can’t locate the legally required tree survey prepared by a certified arborist that maps each oak, the size of its canopy and a protected area around its roots that must remain untouched.

The activists also say contractors did not put up fencing to protect the roots as required until they complained to the city, and that heavy equipment rolled over and damaged the trees’ roots during construction. They also have photos of fill piled up against the oaks’ trunks, apparently improperly.

Church officials and their certified arborist deny that happened. They insist the protective barriers went up before construction crews ever broke ground on the new church building.

The battle over the trees dates to 2010, when the church filed plans with the city for an expansion, which Archdiocese of Miami officials say was desperately needed. The congregation numbers around 6,000 — many of them Haitian immigrants who no longer live in Little Haiti but return every Sunday for Mass — but the old sanctuary, formerly the cafeteria of a girls’ school, seats only 700. Worshippers are now forced to stand outside during Mass.

The new main church sanctuary and chapel will accommodate 1,200 people.

“This is a necessary structure in the heart of this Haitian community,” said Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

The church’s initial plan was turned down by the city because it would have required destroying seven trees. City law requires new construction to be designed around existing historic trees. The church came back with a modified plan that called for removing two oaks and a mango tree.

When the plan was reviewed in 2011 in a tense meeting by the city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, which approves projects on historic sites, Notre Dame bused hundreds of parishioners to Miami City Hall, packing the chambers and overflowing into the lobby and the parking lot outside, often interrupting the quasi-judicial hearing with shouts and applause.

The tree activists tried to save the two oaks. A noted Miami architect, Dean Lewis, presented a plan for a slight redesign of the church entryway that would have allowed the oaks to stand. At no point during the meeting did any of the activists object to the church expansion.

But Jean-Mary and numerous parishioners who spoke insisted the activists were trying to stop the church expansion. Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, a Notre Dame parishioner, also took the unusual step of lending his political clout, speaking in favor of the expansion.

“It was really anti-trees,” Brennan recalled. “They tried to make it out to the fact that we’re trying to stop religion, which we’re not. We’re just trying to save some trees.”

Just before the preservation board meeting, the church fired its arborist and hired recognized certified arborist Lisa Hammer, who often works with developers. At the meeting, Hammer said she had not had time to familiarize herself fully with the project but pledged to protect the trees. The board approved the church plan without modifications. City officials pledged to closely police construction to make sure the trees were unharmed.

Hammer said she goes to the site periodically to make sure construction is adhering to the city of Miami’s tree protection code, which states there must be protective barriers around tree trunks of at least 10 feet in all directions.

But Brennan and the tree activists note that under widely accepted guidelines of the American National Standards Institute, appropriate protective barriers should be a function of each tree’s age, health and trunk diameter, not a blanket distance for all.

That would mean the trees at Notre Dame d’Haiti need protective barriers that spread out 15 to 30 feet from the tree trunks, they say.

Hammer said that’s just not possible on the tight property.

“In a perfect world, we would love to see that much space around every tree at every site,” Hammer said. “But in an urban setting, very often that’s not feasible.”

Hammer said she believes the trees have a very good chance of surviving, particularly with the installation of WANE units — tubes that are inserted between tree roots to allow them to breathe and collect rain.

“I think that we’ve made the best choices we could make,’’ Hammer said.

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