It's just a 40-foot stretch of land on the north bank of the Little River Canal, but for more than four years that piece of Miami real estate south of 79th Street near Biscayne Boulevard has been a battlefield. Someone was always interested in sticking cable TV poles or sewer pipes into the ground, and that always seemed to involve cutting down the massive Australian pines that had been growing there for a half-century.
Several times neighborhood residents had looked out their windows to see men with chain saws about to decimate the vegetation, but they had always managed to halt the carnage -- that is, until Tuesday, August 26, when a crew under contract to Dade's Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) showed up. A stunned neighbor called the City of Miami public works department to protest, but to no avail. Despite not having all the required city permits, the contractor got a verbal go-ahead on the spot from public works assistant director John Jackson (with admonitions to immediately apply for the proper permit). The chain saws began to buzz that morning.
"I was crying," says Eileen Bottari, president of the Palm Grove Neighborhood Association, an organization of about 30 homeowners in Miami's Upper Eastside, west of Biscayne Boulevard. "I got home late Tuesday night and there was a message on my machine. I ran down to the canal and stood on the bank screaming -- because after all this time, we really thought those trees were going to be saved. We're in shock that the city did this to us."
Two days later the forested patch was barren, a glaring hole in the area's lush landscape, and for residents on the canal's south bank, a new window to a not-too-scenic section of 79th Street's convenience stores, prostitutes, and street-corner drug dealers.
Neighbors had known since 1993 that the county was going to put a new sewer line at that spot, which is owned by the City of Miami. They had fought for months to obtain agreements between the city and county that the sewer line would go under the canal (original plans had it crossing above the water). "We wanted to maintain the beauty of the waterway," says Bottari. Part of the placid canal is a manatee zone, shaded by overhanging boughs of oaks and other trees -- Brazilian pepper, melaleuca, and Australian pine, all considered undesirable exotics, but in the eyes of many residents preferable to bulldozed land or saplings.
Residents thought the stand of eight trees -- each more than 40 feet tall with trunks three or more feet in diameter -- was going to remain intact, or at worst that one or two would be lost. Everyone was aware that they were Australian pines, but they were also a favorite habitat for many varieties of birds and waterfowl. "They were really a buffer from the commercial zone, too," says Earle Loomis, whose house is on the south bank of the canal and who called public works on the morning the cutting began.
Outraged homeowners took snapshots of the tree stumps and went to their local Neighborhood Enhancement Team office. The NET administrator, Fred Fernandez, promptly faxed a note to the city's interim director of public works, James J. Kay, seeking an explanation. Fernandez says he was prepared to levy fines of $500 per tree for cutting without the proper permits.
Most of the information that emerged was news to Fernandez and the residents. According to a reply memo from Kay, WASA had secured a permit on August 6 for construction of the underground sewer line. The permit, Kay wrote, "includes all clearing and grubbing necessary to install the pipe. The open-cut method of crossing the river requires the removal of the trees." The actual permit, however, makes no mention of tree cutting; it addresses matters such as placement of project signs, barricades, and warning lights, and the pouring of sidewalks.
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Today Kay admits he didn't realize that no one in the City of Miami can cut down a tree without a special "tree permit," whether it's on public or private property, and regardless of whether a construction project is involved. Public works assistant director John Jackson, who approves permits for the department, confirms that the contractor, prior to cutting, hadn't secured a tree permit, which lists each tree to be removed and requires replacement with "native trees and ground shrubbery."
On the morning of August 26, while Jackson had angry resident Earle Loomis on one line and the contractor, Ric-Man International, on another, he ordered one of his department's inspectors to the site. "After my inspector went by and I confirmed it wasn't just somebody out there to cut the trees," Jackson recalls, "I said, 'We're going to issue this [tree] permit, but mitigation is going to be required to replace some of the trees.' The problem here is the neighbors were apparently not advised or brought up-to-date as to what the requirements are to construct a 24-inch [sewer line]; you can't just snake in between the trees and drop 22 feet below the canal with no disruption to the area. That's virtually impossible. But that's what the neighbors were led to believe."
The tree permit, signed by Jackson and copied to NET administrator Fred Fernandez, is dated August 21, five days before the trees came down. Jackson says he just wrote the wrong date.
Eventually the Little River site will be replanted with new trees that are more desirable than the scorned Australian pines, says public works director Kay. And the county will have its new sewer line without blighting the neighborhood. But it will take years to duplicate the lost curtain of foliage, and the locals are still angry. The worst part of the experience, they say, has been not knowing what was going to happen to their neighborhood from one day to the next. "It gets down to the biggest problem this community has, which is lack of communication," Eileen Bottari says, "not only between [governmental] departments, but within departments. The residents of the Upper Eastside never seem to find out anything until it's already happening. The only way you can get any answers is to make a complete pest of yourself.