To many residents in Coconut Grove, trees are sacred. The neighborhood has long been known for its giant oaks, banyans, and hardwoods that create an iconic canopy. But over the past decade, that tree cover has been under increasing threat. As the neighborhood has undergone rapid development, some of the oldest trees have proven no match for well-heeled developers paying top dollar to maximize the profit potential of a building lot.
It’s a massively sensitive issue for Grovites, who argue about the problem in blogs and community meetings and even formed TreeWatch, an award-winning tree advocacy group to report illegal tree cuttings.
But there’s a growing sense in the community that there’s little left to do to save the trees, says City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes the Grove. “The sense among neighbors is that developers are pretty much getting away with murder,” Russell says. “They feel the system is completely bought and sold.”
That’s why Russell, who was elected in November, is taking up trees as one of his top priorities. He plans to introduce legislation that would enforce existing protections for trees and mandate stricter penalties when they do illegally come down in development projects.
“It’s a huge priority for us that we have a canopy that is protected,” he says.
Russell, a resident of Coconut Grove, showed up on Miami's political scene as an activist for city parks. In the race to claim Miami’s District 2 commission seat last fall, Russell’s campaign was fueled largely by door-to-door outreach. In a surprising upset, he beat Teresa Sarnoff, wife of the incumbent commissioner.
The tree issue quickly came to the forefront for the new commissioner. During his first commission meeting in December, a developer came before the dais seeking to waive a fine for removing two trees. The developer had bought an old house in the Grove for $600,000 and was flipping it to build a big, fancy house that would sell for $2.5 million. After Code Enforcement learned he had chopped down two large trees without a permit, they slapped him with a $100,000 fine — $1,000 per inch of diameter.
But the developer appealed. The case then went to the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, which upheld the fine. The developer appealed again, which landed the case in the commission. While developers can often finagle out of paying, that day Russell voted to hold the developer accountable for $50,000 in penalties for damage to the Grove canopy. It wasn’t the full $100,000 owed, and it was peanuts compared to the end profit, but it was something.
“I decided at that point that any time these do come before me, I could make the example out of the developer,” Russell says. “That is the last chance for that tree to have any vindication whatsoever.”
After that meeting, Russell and his staff sat down with the city’s tree ordinance and began researching the process. The ordinance, he says, is actually quite good, with protections and permits required for tree removal. The problem: It’s often not enforced. Developers may destroy a tree and simply hope no one finds out. A fine, when given, is seen as the “cost of doing business.” And even that fine is appealable.
Russell and his staff began sifting through the tree code, where they found several inconsistencies and a number of vague statements that they plan to take before the commission to tweak.
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Perhaps more important, Russell hopes to direct more city money — including from the “tree trust fund,” which is where tree removal fines land — toward empowering the Department of Planning and Zoning by adding more inspectors to enforce the codes. More manpower means an inspector could visit a property early on in the development process to ensure trees are reflected in the plan instead of when demolition is complete. Inspectors will be tasked with making sure all development is respectful to trees and tree roots. And there are even more ways the city could generate revenue to protect the trees, such as through the permitting process itself, Russell says.
If a tree absolutely does have to come down, penalties will be strictly enforced from here on out, Russell says, adding he's also open to increasing fines.
“I want to send the message that the buck stops with me,” he says. “Even with increased fines and planting new trees, you can really never replace a 100-year-old tree.”