Government, News, Village Life

Losing Cover: City Laws Take a Toll on Tree Canopy

Coconut Grove’s lush tropical foliage is an ecological and economic resource that residents prize and outsiders covet. Why is it disappearing?

Amie Hertzig had a hunch her leafy South Coconut Grove street would lose some of its tree canopy after the century-old bungalow across from her sold last year to a developer. What she didn’t expect was the new owner’s blessing from City of Miami officials to virtually clear the lot of its trees – 33 in all, including a number of mature tamarind, mango, black sapote, mulberry and many others.

“I was in shock,” says Hertzig. “There’s all this development and tree removal all over the Grove, and then here it is, right here, so close to home.”

Hertzig’s Linden Lane neighborhood is no exception. Across Coconut Grove, as modest single-family homes give way to far larger structures, the tree canopy is shrinking.

Between 2016 and 2020 – the last year for which data is available – total tree cover in Coconut Grove declined nine percent, to just under a third of the total area. An even higher rate of decline is expected in the four years since.

Despite the myriad and well documented benefits of urban tree canopy, most of those declines are traced to City of Miami-issued tree removal permits. Over the past year and a half, as a red-hot real estate market has spurred demand for high-end luxury homes, the city has granted requests for the removal of 894 trees within Coconut Grove.

City records obtained by the Spotlight reveal that the vast majority, like on the Linden Lane property, were for extensive lot clearances within residential neighborhoods: 17 trees on Kumquat Avenue, 23 on Calusa Street,19 on Tigertail Avenue, 17 on Hardie Road, 52 on Kiaora Street, 13 on Elizabeth Street. The list goes on.

City officials have noticed an uptick in tree removal requests that leave few standing. “They’re building almost to the edge of the lot so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for canopy,” says Quatisha Oguntoyinbo-Rashad, the affable 25-year veteran of City Hall who heads the city’s Environmental Resources Division.

The City of Miami issued a permit for 33 trees to be removed from this construction site on Linden Lane.

She adds that she and her staff, who review all tree removal applications, often encourage developers to integrate exiting trees into their site plans. But with a pro-development ethos driving policy at both City Hall and the state capital, trees stand little chance in the face of new construction.

“We fight for what we think should be saved,” Oguntoyinbo-Rashad says. “But sometimes there’s nothing really we can do.”

Invoking the sacrosanctity of property rights, some city commissioners have met past efforts to strengthen Miami’s tree protection laws with indifference, if not outright disdain.

To offset canopy loss, the city code requires developers and property owners to plant new ones – shoehorned within the building site, or offsite on adjacent properties – when permits are issued for removal. The 33 trees on Linden Lane, for instance, will be replaced by 12 others planted either on the edge of the site or along the street’s city-owned right of way.

But the new ones, when planted, will be substantially smaller – essentially saplings – which may need decades of care and favorable growing conditions to match the size and ecological and health benefits of those they replace.

“We’re not coming close to mitigating what we’re losing from tree removal,” explains Chris Baraloto, director of land and biodiversity at FIU’s Institute of Environment and a member of the Coconut Grove Village Council.

Baraloto and his research team recently completed a case study of the construction site at Elemi at Grove Village, a five-story apartment complex rising on Thomas Avenue in the West Grove, where the city last year approved the removal of 48 trees, including a number of large, mature oaks, royal poincianas, mahoganies and other hardwoods. 

With the lot virtually cleared, Baraloto points out that the total tree volume under the city-approved mitigation plan, as measured by tree diameter, will be reduced by 51 percent. He also notes that some non-native trees – which have many of the same ecological benefits as natives – were exempted, per city policy, from mitigation requirements.

Virtually an entire block on Thomas Street was cleared of trees to make way for Elemi at Grove Village.

The FIU analysis is also critical of the widespread practice of allowing developers to pay into the city’s Tree Trust Fund in lieu of mitigated planting requirements when space for new trees is limited. The Elemi developers, for instance, paid $120,000 into the fund after arguing that their own site, as well as adjacent rights of way, could accommodate few plantings. The result will be a significant net loss of tree canopy, regardless of any fees paid, for the surrounding neighborhood.

The Tree Trust Fund is used for citywide tree giveaways and other planting programs but can also be tapped for administrative costs. (A detailed spending report has not been made available by city officials despite multiple requests by the Spotlight). The fund is supplemented by fines imposed by the city for illegal tree removal – capped by law at $500 per tree for residential property owners and $1,000 for developers on non-homestead exempted properties.

While illegal tree cutting and removal accounts for only a small portion of overall canopy loss in Coconut Grove – only 16 documented cases in the last year and half, city records show – Oguntoyinbo-Rashad says the relatively meager financial penalties do little to discourage unscrupulous property owners and developers.

“We do hear from some of the design professionals or professionals in the green industry that developers may be factoring in the cost of removing trees without permits as part of their construction costs,” she said

In one of Coconut Grove’s most notorious examples of unpermitted tree removal, back in 2019, 174 trees – including a handful of large specimen oak, banyan, mahogany and other hardwoods – were cut down illegally at the Douglas Road Metrorail station on the Grove’s western fringe to make way for a seven-acre, mixed-use high-rise development. Local tree protection advocates were outraged when Miami-Dade County, which owns the land, imposed a fine of just $25,000.

In a more recent example of unpermitted tree removal, Oguntoyinbo-Rashad points to the 90,000-square-foot waterfront residential lot in North Coconut Grove owned by David Martin, CEO of Grove-based development firm Terra, and his wife Christina.

Last fall the Martins were cited for removing 71 trees without a permit. In many instances, city records show, the owners argued that incurable damage inflicted by windstorms left them with no choice but to remove the trees – a conclusion their own arborist was unable to corroborate.

David Martin, whose company is behind a number of development projects in Coconut Grove including Park Grove, Grove at Grand Bay and Mr. C Residences, is a director of Grove Tree-Man Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 1995 to promote policies aimed at building tree canopy. 

The couple – after razing their existing 14,000-square-foot mansion – are building a massive new home on the site, which abuts the popular Alice C. Wainwright Park. They were ordered to plant 59 new trees and, after arguing that the property would not support additional plantings, also agreed to pay $117,000 into the Tree Trust Fund. (City officials have not said if a financial penalty was also imposed).

Mindful that Coconut Grove’s signature tree canopy is shrinking, Oguntoyinbo-Rashad notes that all city-issued tree removal permits (and mitigation plans for illegal cutting) can be appealed by residents. She says it surprised her that nobody challenged the decision to allow a vast clearing of the Elemi site on Thomas Avenue.

But in 2022 the City Commission passed a little-noticed change to its code that substantially increased the filing costs for such appeals by dropping some fee exemptions for abutting neighbors and by adding, for everyone, a required “advertising fee” of $1,500 – an expense that has helped discourage all but the most committed and well-heeled neighbors and civic activists.

Baraloto, who routinely monitors the city’s list of pending tree permits, says drumming up grassroots support – and funding — for appeals is growing more difficult given the added costs.

One recent exception is Todd Friedman, an attorney who learned last fall that a property not far from his South Grove home on Avocado Avenue would soon become a construction site mostly cleared of its trees.

This 75-year-old oak on Avocado Avenue was saved when residents appealed a city decision allowing its removal.

One large oak overlooking the street, perhaps 75 years old, caught his attention. He paid the filing fees himself which, after various other city costs and fees, added up to nearly $2,500. He enlisted more than 20 neighbors to voice support to the appeals board.

In January the board ruled in his favor, rejecting the developer’s argument that construction plans for a new 4,300-square-foot home would be unfairly impacted by trees remaining on the property.

While pleased with the outcome, Friedman cautions that the victory is a minor one in the fight to preserve Coconut Grove’s canopy. Saved from the saw was one medium-sized oak – a single tree.

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