If money were no object, and the type of landscaping along Gulf of Mexico Drive weren’t regulated by the Florida Department of Transportation, most Longboaters would probably favor lining the road with tall, stately royal palms.
The trees would create an air of elegance that would complement the lush ground-level landscaping of many of the homes and condos along the road, and its canopy would provide some welcome shade for sidewalk strollers and bikers.
Because this vision is cost prohibitive and not permitted in light of regulations requiring vehicle pull-over space and breakaway landscaping in case of accidents, what can be done to improve the appearance of Gulf of Mexico Drive?
When the Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board bridged the subject, one board member remarked that he considered the beautification of Gulf of Mexico Drive to be a contradiction of terms. Many others in town have also questioned the seemingly haphazard planting of a few trees here and there with the perception of no organized plan.
Well, there actually is a plan. In fact, there is a long history of ongoing attempts to improve the aesthetic appeal of Gulf of Mexico Drive. Town planner Steve Schield offers the following historical summary:
• 1930: John Ringling plants Australian pines along the length of Gulf of Mexico Drive
• 1978: Referendum vote approves the building of a 6-foot multipurpose path on the east side of Gulf of Mexico Drive. A town bond issued finances the project.
• 1983-89: The Town Commission appoints a Town Beautification Committee to make recommendations for improvements to town parks and roadways, establish annual beautification awards, produce beautification literature and submit beautification grant applications.
• 1988: FDOT approves a grant to create Overlook Park by New Pass Bridge, plant wildflower beds and plant palm trees across from the Bayport condominiums.
• 1990: The commission appoints the Gulf of Mexico Blue Ribbon Committee to make recommendations on the repaving of Gulf of Mexico Drive, the addition of bike lanes, replacement turf in construction areas and possible changes to the sign code.
• 1993: More than 200 Australian pines are removed along Gulf of Mexico Drive.
• 1996: Backlit street signs are approved and installed along Gulf of Mexico Drive.
• 1997: Sea grapes are planted along Gulf of Mexico Drive across from Bayport condos to resolve sea-turtle light complaints from Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
• 1997: The Gulf of Mexico Drive Master Landscape Plan by David Johnson & Associates is created to apply for FDOT beautification grants.
• 1997: FDOT grant funds planting of trees at the north and south end of the Key and in the Bayfront Park area.
• 1998: Gulf of Mexico Drive Beautification Program is created, encouraging adjoining properties to irrigate the Gulf of Mexico Drive right-of-way areas.
• 2006: FDOT enhancement funds result in planting of additional trees along Gulf of Mexico Drive.
• 2009: Planned FDOT funds are used to extend sections of sidewalk along the west side of Gulf of Mexico Drive.
• 2009-10: FDOT resurfaces Gulf of Mexico Drive and adds a few new turn lanes along the roadway.
Given this long history of well-intentioned committees, some FDOT funding and the existence of a formal landscaping plan since 1997, why are so many of us still unhappy with the results?
West versus East
Landscaping on Gulf of Mexico Drive is really an east-west phenomenon. In general, the west side of the road is quite attractive with the kind of lush landscaping Longboaters have grown to love. This is because the west, or Gulf, side of the road is dominated by large, upscale homes and condos that use large-scale landscaping to mark their borders and provide privacy. The west side of the road also has fewer stretches of sidewalk, which allows vegetation to move closer to the road.
In contrast, the east side has a deeper, open setback to accommodate long stretches of sidewalk. With the irrigation program launched in 1998, 80% of the Key’s right-of-way is now irrigated, and this has improved the appearance and resiliency of the grass strips bordering the sidewalk. But grass strips get worn down by parked vehicles and dry weather.
To continue to improve the appearance of the east side of Gulf of Mexico Drive, the town is using FDOT grants to plant trees in select areas. The town uses plantings with individual tree specimens, such as silver buttonwoods and Geiger trees, because they don’t require much maintenance once they are established.
The town doesn’t include supporting beds and shrubbery for the trees because the Public Works Department doesn’t have enough manpower to provide ongoing maintenance.
Back to the future
To remedy this situation, we should revive the 1998 beautification program that enlisted the help of property owners.
The town, for instance, would plant landscaped beds complete with trees, mulch and supporting vegetation. The adjacent property owners would then provide the maintenance. Because the landscaping stock would be the salt-tolerant, water-retentive stock recommended in the Sarasota County Low Impact
Development Landscaping Manual, the amount of maintenance would be minimal.
This revised landscaping approach would provide a more attractive appearance in the right of way, a safer buffer zone from the road and bike lane for our sidewalk users and a greener landscape. In addition, the less water-intensive turf and reduced runoff would help us to continue to improve the clarity of our waterways. It is also affordable, given the current status of our FDOT beautification grants.
The Town Commission should maximize the visual-and-functional impact of our grant-beautification funding for Gulf of Mexico Drive by asking the town manager to work with the Public Works Department and homeowners to incorporate this landscaping approach. It would be a win-win for everyone on the Key.
Sandy Gilbert is a former chairman of the Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board and is currently the chairman of START.