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.