Some residents protest county's removal of 252 canopy trees in Summerfield and Riverwalk.
An issue rooted in two different Lakewood Ranch communities has produced several branches of thought.
Manatee County is planning the removal of 177 trees along streets in Summerfield and 75 in Riverwalk that it says have caused damage, will cause damage or are too expensive to maintain without posing various safety hazards.
Most of the trees are oak, although a few are crepe myrtles, magnolias and other species that Public Works Department Strategic Affairs Manager Ogden Clark III said include roots that have damaged county infrastructure.
Clark said the county believes there will still be sufficient canopy in most parts of the community because of how large the remaining trees will be.
The county does not require specific types of trees to provide canopy over streets and sidewalks, but instead defines a canopy tree as one “which produces one main trunk and normally reaches a height of 30 (feet) or more upon maturity.” The county’s code generally says one canopy tree should be planted, within 25 feet of the road or sidewalk, for every 50 feet of frontage.
However, Clark said the trees that were planted between the road and sidewalk when Summerfield was developed in the late 1990s were improperly located. The development’s site plan was approved with tree locations that didn’t match county code, but Clark said because “street trees” was a relatively new concept in the code, county staff may not have realized the importance of planting them further away from infrastructure.
While many residents are happy to see the trees go, others have concerns. Cathy Masztalics moved to the neighborhood from New York in March 2019. The canopy trees are one of the main reasons she moved to the neighborhood.
“When you turn down the boulevard, it just took my breath away to see the beautiful landscape,” Masztalics said. “When you drive through Summerfield, the canopy trees line our streets. And they provide not only aesthetic beauty, but they’re a home for our many birds and wildlife that live in Lakewood Ranch.”
Masztalics is also concerned by the process of removing the trees. Not long ago, she tripped over the stump of a recently removed tree while walking her dogs at night. However, Clark said the county will be grinding the stumps flat with the ground and said a crew will be sent to do the same to the one Masztalics tripped over to prevent any possible incidents.
Masztalics and her neighbor, Stephanie Robinson, understand that some of the trees must be removed because they are damaging sidewalks and roads. But they believe 177 is too many to do at once.
They both think if the trees must go, they should be replaced with a species that won’t damage the neighborhood’s infrastructure and continue to provide a home for squirrels and birds, such as cardinals. Clark said the county would likely have no issue if a neighborhood came up with a plan to replace removed trees, as long as the plan complied with county code, but added the cost would fall on the HOA or homeowners.
“There's just got to be another way besides taking 177 trees down all in one shot and changing the total look of the neighborhood,” Robinson said. “Maybe one at a time, as they end up as a problem, would be a better idea than doing it all in one shot. And at that time, maybe there's enough money in the budget to go ahead and replace them with something.”
However, Clark said imminent damage to sidewalks and roads isn’t the only reason for tree removal. For example, the roots can damage stormwater and drain pipes underground. The only fix for this problem is cutting the roots, which isn’t healthy for the trees.
Another issue is providing proper clearance for emergency vehicles and utility vendors, such as garbage trucks. Clark said the trees are so close to the road, they must be trimmed once every two or three years to ensure there is no interference with tall vehicles. The county aims to go five to six years between tree maintenance services for each community because of budget restrictions.
Clark said $325,000 was budgeted for the removal of Summerfield’s trees, but the current contract cost is $211,752. The remainder of the budget will roll over into the Riverwalk project. The county has spent $560,790 on Summerfield tree maintenance and sidewalk repairs in the past 10 years.
Masztalics and Robinson also said not enough residents know about the project and wondered if the county was trying to keep it quiet. Lakewood Ranch Inter-District Authority Executive Director Anne Ross, however, disagrees. Ross said Lakewood Ranch appreciates that the county began communicating with the IDA and reaching out to Summerfield and Riverwalk residents well ahead of time.
Ross said Lakewood Ranch deals with these issues in some of the communities it manages, such as Country Club and Edgewater.
The IDA removes those trees on a case-by-case basis as each one starts causing issues, sometimes cutting the roots and placing barriers to prevent them from growing back into the road or sidewalk. But this approach doesn’t always work. If the IDA has to go to the same tree repeatedly, it usually decides to simply remove the tree.
Although oak trees and similar species aren’t supposed to be planted between roads and sidewalks, communities and homeowners still have to plant them somewhere to satisfy the county’s canopy requirement. Often, that means planting them in residents’ yards. Clark said it’s crucial for trees such as oak with large root systems to be planted in the proper location. Otherwise, they can cause damage to water pipes, driveways and more.
Creekwood resident Paul Delger had such an issue shortly after moving into his home in March 2019, when he noticed the roots of an oak tree on his property were growing into his driveway. About a year later, he contacted his HOA, which approved removal of the tree and the planting of three palm trees in its stead.
Delger, however, was responsible for the oak tree’s removal, which he said cost him $1,400. He said the county should have paid for the removal, saying it required the tree be planted in the first place.
Clark said each neighborhood is usually responsible for overseeing the removal of a tree on a resident’s property if the resident wants it removed, assuming the county is satisfied the tree is not vital to the community’s canopy.
It’s part of the delicate balance between providing the trees many residents want to make their neighborhood look beautiful, but doing so properly in order to prevent the aforementioned issues. Clark encourages homeowners, builders and county staff members to become more knowledgeable about the trees they plant in yards and along roads and sidewalks.
There's importance to the code for it to have those trees, to have that canopy,” Clark said. “From what we're hearing from the neighborhood, that is an important aspect of this neighborhood and the people that live there. As we continue forward here in Manatee County, that is something that shouldn't go away from the code and something that is beneficial when done correctly.”