Lush landscaping vs. flood control: Village tries to defend its canal turf

Residents fight to keep their trees in Pinecrest

Pinecrest residents are fighting the South Florida Water Management office after some of their trees were removed from the edge of a canal in Miami.
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Pinecrest residents are fighting the South Florida Water Management office after some of their trees were removed from the edge of a canal in Miami.

After Hurricane Andrew rolled over his Pinecrest neighborhood and flattened all his trees, Colin D’Arcy got to work resuscitating the lush yard that backs up to a meandering canal, planting six palms, a sapodilla and, the crown jewel, a grand lychee draped with orchids.

Now another kind of storm has come along, threatening to again strip lush landscaping from a community nationally recognized for its trees.

In October, the South Florida Water Management District notified homeowners in the village that the agency needed to clear the banks along a 7-mile stretch of the C-100 canal, an almost pastoral waterway with forks and bends dredged in the 1960s. Florida wildlife officials describe it as one of the rare canals where water sometimes runs clear enough to spot fish. The canal also serves a vital job: providing flood protection for much of the Cutler Basin, sending water south through a gate just below the Deering Estate and into Biscayne Bay.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of families there that depend on that canal.

South Florida Water Management District spokesman Randy Smith

It was designed to move 2,300 cubic feet of water per second, equal to about 2,300 standard swimming pools in a half hour. “There are literally hundreds of thousands of families there that depend on that canal,” said SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith.

D’Arcy, who bought his house 36 years ago and raised three children there, is one of them, but he’s unhappy about the unsightly side-effect of canal maintenance. District officials told him they’d need to clear the entire easement in his backyard — a 32-foot-wide expanse that reaches to within six feet of his patio and includes nearly every tree in his backyard.

“Those three guys stood right there and told me bluntly they’re not budging,” he said of a meeting with district officials. “We don’t know what to do next. Short of a legal challenge, we just don’t know what to do. It’s a railroaded, arbitrary decision.”

Without the trees, D’Arcy worries that erosion that has already eaten up 3 to 5 feet of his bank will worsen and wonders why trees can’t simply be trimmed. Shoring up the banks or erecting no-wake signs — one day this week a flats skiff rounded the bend near his house, sending waves crashing into his bank — could also help without stripping away all his shade. Some residents complained that not having a no-wake zone likely caused banks to erode even more. They wonder how such work could be allowed in Pinecrest, where ripping out a single tree usually requires planting four in its place.

Pinecrest Mayor Joe Corradino, an urban planner, said he tried to intervene, instructing village staff to write a letter asking for more time and a way for residents to appeal decisions.

“They turned us down in each case,” he said. “They gave us a little bit of hope, but it appears now they’re just going to be cutting the trees, and we’re really disappointed in that because while we recognize the need to keep the canal clear, there are trees that are healthy and don’t pose a threat.

“It’s kind of cloaked in mystery at this point,” Corradino said.

In the three decades he’s lived in his house, D’Arcy said he can’t remember such a massive clearing of trees, unless you count Hurricane Andrew in 1992. D’Arcy bought the 2,700-square-foot house after a job transfer brought him from New York, where he’d moved from his native Trinidad. At the time, Pinecrest was a middle-class neighborhood, filled with mostly ranch-style homes on large lots. Over the years, those big lots in booming South Florida appreciated considerably. The canal, blasted out of the coral rock and aged to an almost natural-looking state, only added to the value.

Following Andrew, D’Arcy said he paid to clear the downed trees himself — without district help — and got to work planting new ones, never realizing the district required a permit for such work. He planted the palms — which keep his refrigerator filled with bottles of coconut water — sapodilla and lychee, now laced with the roots of orchids secured to its trunk over the years by his wife. They once hosted a wedding under its canopy. Near his small kidney-shaped pool, he erected a patio bar, with a bright green sign declaring it paradise.

In recent weeks, workers came and staked out the top of his bank and told him they planned to take out every tree, extending another 20 feet into his yard, he said. That would leave a paved deck installed by a previous homeowner at the canal’s edge, presumably shadeless. D’Arcy was outraged. After his meeting with the field crew, he and neighbors started talking. They planned a meeting. He emailed the local representative, who called him back. D’Arcy tried to plead his case.

“I’m not sure those reasons held any water for him,” D’Arcy emailed his neighbors. So he wrote district headquarters, and got a canned reply from board chairman Dan O’Keefe.

Corradino warned D’Arcy that despite several weeks of effort by village staff to reason with district officials, it appeared that talks had broken down.

“As of tonight, I’ve asked our manager and attorney if there’s anything from a legal perspective we can do to delay the cutting so that we can work on some more flexibility,” Corradino wrote D’Arcy on Tuesday.

7 milesThe length of the C-100 canal slated to have trees removed, which runs through the heart of Pinecrest and will eventually includes parts of the county.

After the Herald inquired, the district contacted the village Friday and assured staff they intend to work with homeowners individually to find a solution. In an interview, the team said they always planned to apply a “common sense” approach, not a wholesale razing.

“There are some folks who planted some really nice landscapes,” said Steve Fairtrace, the district’s field project manager.

Homeowners can relocate trees, although non-native, exotic trees will be removed, they said. Homeowners may be able to work out a deal to save native trees, if they agree to cover the cost of maintenance. Many shrubs will be saved. Sod will be replanted.

“When we work with homeowners to save a tree, then there is an obligation for them to maintain it,” said John Hixenbaugh, who oversees right-of-ways for the district. “So yes, there will be an option for that, for trees that remain.”

When we work with homeowners to save a tree, then there is an obligation for them to maintain it. So yes, there will be an option for that, for trees that remain.

John Hixenbaugh, chief of the district’s right-of-way section

But there will also be cases where some trees, like towering palms, have to come down.

“An 80-foot palm, there’s no maintenance you can do to avoid that tree going into the system,” said Joel Arrieta, the district’s operations and maintenance chief.

Keeping the canal free of debris is critical to flood control, especially during hurricanes when heavy winds can fill canals with debris, they said. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the district spent $614,000 to remove vegetation from the canal along the Pinecrest stretch, said Rory Feeney, the district’s land resources bureau chief.

D’Arcy remained skeptical, saying talking to homeowners individually still sounded vague.

“Doesn’t sound like much of a concession,” he said in an email.

Going into the project, district officials say they expected homeowners to have concerns. They created a website to explain the project, sent out mailers and hung fliers on front doors. They also picked this stretch for clearing, knowing it would likely be the toughest. In upcoming years, they will need to continue the work on the rest of the 7-mile stretch. That work will affect hundreds of homeowners and extend into Miami-Dade County, which a county spokeswoman said would require a permit to remove trees. The team could not say when that work would be done.

Corradino said all he wanted was to ensure trees that could be saved would be saved.

“I don’t have anything in writing,” he said. “But they told us they are going to … evaluate things and they’re not going to cut things more than 20 feet from the canal bank and more than 25 feet tall, and they would exercise discretion. That’s really what we’re looking for.”

Starting work in Pinecrest, he said, might also end up being a boon for the district.

“This will be the hardest place they will ever do a project,” he said. “We’re a pain in the ass.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich