Three months after contractors illegally cut down mangroves on Virginia Key, irking Miami commissioners and enraging environmentalists, the city of Miami has been urged to restore the destroyed canopy within five years.
On that point, Miami administrators agree. But the city and county are still at odds over just how many trees were ripped out, and the area that must be replanted.
In a deal proffered by the county’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, the city would pay a nominal fine of $4,000, plus another $1,100 in administrative fees. The city must also replant nearly 1,800 square feet of mangrove and buttonwood canopy that regulators say was cut down among a thicket of both native and exotic species.
The city can avoid the fine by planting an additional 500 square feet of mangrove canopy, but administrators have told two contractors blamed for the error that whoever was responsible will have to cover any penalties levied on the city. Miami administrators were also granted a 60-day extension to respond.
Jeovanny Rodriguez, head of Miami’s capital improvements department, said the city asked for an extension in order to see the county’s documentation showing that 1,770 square feet of mangroves were removed just to the northwest of historic Miami Marine Stadium. The city’s own documents, he said, suggest the area was closer to 500 square feet.
“We do need to mitigate for whatever was taken out,” said Rodriguez. “But what we have looked at, it's not as much as the county is saying. It's also important for me to know the area so I can know which contractor was the one who did it.”
In February, the first of two contractors was hired by the city to begin clearing 36,000 square feet of brush from around the stadium to prepare the area for the Miami International Boat Show in 2016. JB Builders & Contractors and Metro Express worked on different areas of the property.
An environmental regulator discovered on May 21 that black and red mangrove trees, as well as native buttonwoods and seagrapes, had been illegally cut down. The contractors were unaware that mangroves existed in the area, according to the city. Removing the trees — which play an important role in South Florida marine habitats — requires a Class I permit.
Miami officials have downplayed the scope of the tree removal, and representatives of the Boat Show insist they’re working with regulatory agencies to host an environmentally conscious project. But the Boat Show’s relocation from Miami Beach has been highly controversial, and the city’s stumble reinforced concerns from environmentalists that plans to erect temporary floating docks, ferry show attendees in by water taxi and construct an outdoor event space will harm the environment.
On Saturday, during a small protest by environmentalists on Virginia Key, Key Biscayne resident Kenneth Coto brought his wife and three children, one of whom carried a sign protesting the removal of the mangroves.
“If that’s how they’re going to start the process, then Lord knows how they’re going to continue on,” Coto said.
Lee Hefty, assistant director of the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, said through a spokeswoman that he doesn’t believe the mangrove removal was intentional.
“At this time the Department has no information to indicate that the unauthorized activity was anything other than a mistake on the part of the City’s contractor,” he said.
On Aug. 18, environmental code officer JoAnne Clingerman sent Rodriguez a proposed consent agreement that requires the city to replant the mangroves on the site from which they were cleared and ensure they grow to the scope of what previously existed. With the help of a biologist, workers must protect the trees in planters and ensure that they grow back within five yerrs to what previously existed.
After planting the mangroves, the city must submit a restrictive covenant over the land, ensuring the mitigation will be seen through to completion. If Miami doesn’t follow through, the county reserves the right to sue to enforce the agreement.