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.