The Great Largo Gumbo Limbo Imbroglio

When 350 trees fall in a protected North Key forest, they make a very loud noise

Manuel Diaz is testimony to the little-known fact that money does grow on trees. Since the 1960s, Diaz, a Cuban immigrant, has transformed a nursery business he started in his parents' back yard into one of the largest ornamental plant companies in the world: the 1500-acre Manuel Diaz Farms in South Dade. He is responsible for supplying and planting the $1.72 million worth of landscaping along Florida's Turnpike from West Palm Beach to Florida City. His plants adorn Joe Robbie Stadium, Calder Race Track, and the posh residential developments of Weston, Deering Bay, and Fisher Island. He counts the emir of Kuwait among his customers.

Diaz has his civic-minded side, as well. He has donated foliage to landscape streets and neighborhoods around South Florida, including the Rickenbacker Causeway and Calle Ocho; he even provided $100,000 worth of trees to create a backdrop to Pope John Paul II's mass during the pontiff's 1987 trip to Miami. Over time, he has become known as a well-connected Republican with good money to spend on select campaigns.

But some officials in the Florida Keys don't think Diaz is so wonderful. In fact, they say he's a tree poacher. The 47-year-old tree farmer currently faces accusations that he illegally removed hundreds of gumbo limbo cuttings from an environmentally sensitive forest in North Key Largo and damaged hundreds of other plants in the process. "I'm really incensed that Manny was down here raping our hammock," complains Monroe County biologist Niko Reisinger. "I'm sorry to say it, but he's a dirtbag, a scumbucket. I could come up with some other words, too, but I'd better not!"

The gumbo limbo massacre occurred this past May in the North Key Largo Habitat Conservation Area, a sensitive biological ecosystem that provides a habitat for 84 federally or state protected plants and animals. (While some of the conservation area is under private ownership, strict development and conservation rules apply within its boundaries.) According to Reisinger, Diaz's firm had received permission from a private landowner in the area, the Bell Family Trust, to remove the gumbo limbo plants from their property. Monroe officials say Diaz agreed to pay Bell about $1.50 per cutting.

Reisinger says Diaz failed to secure the necessary land-clearing permits for the work. Rather, the biologist reports, Diaz's employees simply took approximately 350 gumbo limbo cuttings ranging in size from one and a half to six and a half inches in diameter and four to six feet in length. (A highly regenerative plant, gumbo limbo will resprout and grow from practically any cutting.) Reisinger also estimates that the workers damaged at least 350 other plants by cutting and trampling a path across the Bell's forested property to the gumbo limbo stand.

Not only did Diaz lack the proper land-clearing permit, Reisinger contends, but the nurseryman would never have been granted permission had he applied for it. Monroe County regulations prohibit land clearing of native vegetation unless it's done in conjunction with permitted construction, and the Bell Family property is located in a subdivision where building permits cannot be issued.

In June the Monroe County Code Enforcement Department issued the Bell Family Trust a notice of violation; in cases of illegal land-clearing, Monroe County regulations only allow officials to cite the landowner. "This is not the only instance of tree poaching that has gone on in North Key Largo," reports Reisinger. "But this is the only time we've been able to point the finger at someone and say, 'He did this.'" The penalty: the Bell Family must plant 350 six-foot-tall trees and 350 three-foot-tall seedling trees or shrubs at a state-owned nature preserve. (Reisinger determined that refoliating the Bell property would cause further, unnecessary damage to the hammock.) According to the order, cut-off pieces of gumbo limbo are unacceptable.

Under Monroe County order, Diaz is not allowed to sell, remove, or destroy the allegedly ill-gotten gumbo limbo until the issue is resolved. While the tree-grower is cooperating with the order, he is contesting the Bell citation. "Mr. Diaz's position is that he wasn't engaged in land-clearing," insists the nursery's attorney, Nicholas Mulick. "He was pruning those trees, he was taking those cuttings to propagate new trees. As far as the county is concerned, any time you go onto property and cut anything that's growing, it's considered land-clearing. Mr. Diaz has a state license and is authorized to engage in commercial nursery operations and landscaping." (Neither Diaz nor representatives of the Bell Family could be reached for comment.)

Reisinger scoffs at Mulick's excuse. She says there is no dispute that land-clearing took place: most trees were chopped close to the ground, others had their tops lopped off in violation of the pruning guidelines established by Monroe County. If Diaz thought he was pruning those trees, Reisinger contends, he was employing unorthodox methods that severely weakened the plants or eliminated them altogether.

Mulick says he's trying to negotiate with the county "to work out the dispute," but Monroe code enforcement inspector Sally Linck says the case will likely go before the county's code enforcement board this month. If the board rules against the Bell Family, they could be subject to as much as a $250-per-day fine for the violations until the problem is corrected. "Unfortunately, the restoration planting would have to be performed at the Bell Family's expense," Reisinger says.

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