Miami-Dade County

Protests stall plan to cull, replant Brickell Avenue median trees

It seemed like a simple plan: The City of Miami, long criticized for neglecting its green spaces, embarked on a badly needed culling and extensive replanting of the thick but ragged shade-tree canopy that defines the median of Brickell Avenue’s tony residential section.

City officials consulted with a Brickell residents’ group for more than a year, hired a top-drawer landscape design and engineering firm, and budgeted nearly $1 million to buy and plant a diverse range of 237 mature shade trees and palms. They identified sick, hazardous or damaged trees for removal and tagged them with notices, and won city commission approval to spend the money.

But in Miami, nothing’s that simple.

When crews began cutting down some of the 70 trees which consulting arborists had concluded could not be saved or were causing problems, some residents freaked out. They organized daily protests and a petition drive and launched a Facebook page to stop what they labeled a “crime’’ and a tree “massacre.”

WPLG Local 10 fanned the flames when it aired a report on a Friday evening that showed lots of chainsawing, mentioned the plan only in passing and interviewed no city officials on camera. When City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, a key backer of the plan, showed up at a protest, he says he was shoved and spit on by one woman. His aide and the consultants were interrupted by shouts when they tried to explain the plan at a public meeting.

The Tree Partiers got what they wanted.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who lives in Brickell and has at times been at political odds with Sarnoff, called Gus Pego, district secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Brickell roadway.

Pego then effectively shut down the city project after 40 trees had already been chopped down, saying the city needs an FDOT permit for the project.

On their Facebook page, tree protesters celebrated: “Victory!’’ one posted. “We roasted them!!!!!!’’ wrote another after the meeting at which city and project officials were excoriated.

But leaders of the Brickell Homeowners’ Association, whose long-frustrated demands that the city improve the neglected median had finally prompted the beautification project, say they’re baffled and disappointed. The association and city officials say meetings were open, and the association publicized the project in its newsletter, which was distributed widely, and on its website.

“It’s been discussed, honestly, for almost two years,’’ said association spokeswoman Natalie Brown, who added that her group, which represents 40 buildings and 25 businesses along the avenue, worked closely on the plans with planners and consultants. “It’s always been something that residents have asked for and advocated for. This is the first time we’ve seen the will by the city to do something that could be really great.’’

City administrators say they have submitted their plans to FDOT, and are willing to meet again with residents and protesters.

Sarnoff would like to replant one block as planned, a tactic he believes would prove its advantages.

At bottom, the dispute seems to come down to different views of how the median should be designed: the present semi-rustic look, or a more groomed, garden-style layout.

The protest leader, Brickell-area resident Miriam Moreno, contends the association and city officials had no right to “negotiate’’ a plan on behalf of neighborhood residents, most of whom she says were, like her, unaware of the project until notices went up on the median in late July.

Moreno acknowledged that many trees on the median need to be replaced because they’re sick or badly damaged — either by 2005’s Hurricane Wilma or because they’ve been hit by cars.

But she says most residents simply want the median back the way it was, and she’s skeptical of city officials’ claims that the replacement shade trees would be at least 20 feet tall. She especially dislikes that about 80 of the new trees will be palms.

“Nobody wants that. This is not the Beach. What people want is for the canopy to remain,’’ she said. “I want my Royal Poincianas. I want those big trees.’’

City officials say that’s exactly what Brickell would get: not saplings, but a net gain of 167 mature trees, including live oaks, gumbo limbos, pink tabebuias, black olives and wild tamarinds as well as several varieties of palms. In addition, said city capital improvements director Mark Spanioli, the median will get 10,000 shrubs and ground-cover plantings and, for the first time, an irrigation system.

In the end, they say, residents would get a far more attractive, and robust, median — including 100 existing trees that will remain in place.

“We walked it tree by tree with the intention of saving anything we could,’’ Sarnoff said. “We did everything right.’’

Sarnoff said the median had become a hodge-podge of healthy and damaged, leaning trees, including some well beyond their life span and seedlings growing randomly or impinging on the right of way. On several occasions, he said, tree limbs have fallen on the roadway, at least once striking a car hard enough to cause serious damage.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden arborist Bob Brennan, who inspected the median at the request of protesters, say both sides have a point. Many of the standing trees are “hazardous,” he said, while also questioning some choices made by the city’s consulting arborist, who he said may have misidentified some specimens.

“There are a lot of things that I would remove, which isn’t going to make the neighbors any happier,’’ Brennan said. “But they took out things that probably did not need to be taken, and they didn’t take things that should be taken. So I kind of question the thought pattern.’’

Sarnoff, whose district includes Brickell and partly overlaps with Suarez’s, believes “there’s some politics in play in this.’’ He claimed Suarez “doesn’t like’’ the Brickell association because its leaders have complained the county has done little to help the area.

Sarnoff has also criticized Pego and agency engineers over a repaving project on the commercial portion of Brickell Avenue that he says did too little to slow speeding autos and improve pedestrian safety .

Through a spokesman, Pego said he concluded the city needed a permit for the project after getting the call from Suarez. Though the city is responsible for maintaining the Brickell median, the scope of the project exceeded that authority, Pego said. And though the agency has agreed to turn over jurisdiction over the full roadway to the city, that has not yet been formally approved, he said.

But Sarnoff said Pego attended at least one meeting with the Brickell association over the project and was aware of the project before getting Suarez’s call.

Suarez, whose son, city Commissioner Francis Suarez, voted to approve the money for the Brickell project, denied politics was a motive. As he described it on his Facebook page, he called Pego after receiving a petition signed by 1,500 people. Suarez said he didn’t ask Pego to halt the project and was unaware it had been stopped.

“We were getting reports of trees cut down without proper permits. I don’t like cutting down existing trees without reason,” Suarez said. “I think we ought to listen to the residents and see what their thoughts are.”

Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this story.