Miami's Sea Grapes Protect Dunes, but Police Worry They Also Encourage Criminals

Police fear illicit activity in the shadows.
Police fear illicit activity in the shadows.
Photo by Jess Swanson

One day early last year, Luiz Rodrigues gazed out at the dunes near the Fourth Street Beach. The sandy hills are cordoned off with rope and wooden fencing, a sanctuary for many amid the bustle of South Beach. Inside, sea oats swayed in the wind. Fuchsia bayhop flowers blossomed. But the clean-shaven environmentalist, who regularly walks to the beach from his nearby apartment, sensed something was amiss before even reaching the sand.

It was the sea grape trees. Once sprouting eight feet tall on sturdy stalks and with luscious, rounded leaves, the trees had been dramatically thinned. Their branches had been amputated. Leaves plucked. They bore no fruit for birds to munch on. To Rodrigues, these were no longer trees, but stumps.

"Imagine a tree that was seven or eight feet tall, and now the trunk is one foot to the ground," says Rodrigues, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Coalition of Miami & the Beaches (ECOMB). "The tree is gone. The tree has been completely cut. You can't even tell what it is."

He was even more mystified when he learned why: The city had chopped sea grapes along the whole length of the beach at the request of police, who say the trees provide dark cover to criminals and drug users.

In fact, the iconic plants have lately become a bizarre flash point around South Florida between some environmentalists, who say dense plots of sea grapes can prevent beach erosion, and cops and concerned residents, who fear illicit activity in the trees' shadowy dens.

"The sea grapes will grow to be 20 feet high and will attract a lot of illegal activity," says Stephen Nagy, who owns a home near Fort Lauderdale Beach where sea grapes were recently planted. "People will be coming in for romantic interludes, disguise themselves in the leaves, even in the day."

The sea grape tree, or Coccoloba uvifera, is an evergreen native to the South Florida shore. It's also found throughout the Caribbean, Mississippi, and Hawaii. Because the species needs little water, is salt-tolerant, and requires a lot of sunlight, the beach is its natural ecosystem. The plants typically grow into large bushes or small trees. Pigeons, parrots, woodpeckers, and mockingbirds are known to roost on the trees' branches and nibble on their bitter green fruit that grows in clusters like grapes.

The plants also play a key role in dunes. In Miami Beach, the dunes were reconstructed in the 1980s by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Miami-Dade County in an effort to prevent sand from flying away or being swept back into the ocean.

But when City of Miami Beach officials formulated a plan to begin chopping sea grapes in 2014, they couched their plan in terms of dune management. In a plan the city promised would "enhance the environmental and storm protection functions of the dunes... [and] address stakeholder concerns," the city began pruning the sea grape trees to a height between 24 and 30 inches. The idea, the city says, is that thinner and shorter sea grapes are healthier for the dunes.

Coastal dune biologist Robert H. Barron, who consulted on the new plan, wrote in a letter to Miami Beach that "pruning strengthens the stability of the dune system over time because it modifies the trees to low and dense growth, which makes them more stable and more likely to endure a major windstorm without unrooting or toppling."

Adds Miami Beach spokesperson Melissa Berthier: "We prune some sea grapes to shrub height so they are less top-heavy and better equipped to withstand storms."

But some of South Florida's best-known tree experts say that argument makes little sense. Sheryl Gold, longtime tree advocate and cofounder of Greenspace Tree Advocacy Group, says there's no evidence that radically pruned sea grapes are better for dunes.

"We have not been able to find anyone who could provide science to show that this strengthens the trees or the dune system," she says.

Bob Brennan, an arborist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and one of the foremost experts in tree relocation, protection, and care, also says the city's science doesn't make sense.

"Roots grow to support the canopy of the tree," he says. "When you take off the canopy of the tree, a great part of the root system is unnecessary. Then they'll die and shrink back."

What's more, Brennan says, sea grapes' roots that have been shaded for years are now exposed to the searing Miami sun.

"Roots don't compartmentalize as well in a hot, boiling, burning sand," he says. "When you have people who are actually killing the things that they're saying will grow, it just doesn't make sense. Minor canopy reduction maybe, but certainly not cutting them off like they did."

All of that evidence, environmentalists say, makes it clear that the pruning isn't about dune health at all — but rather crime prevention.

Miami Beach officials say chopping sea grapes helps "eliminates hiding areas" and makes it more difficult for crimes to occur in the dunes.

Police couldn't offer any specific instances when sea grapes were used as a hiding place for criminals. But eliminating the dense foliage does fit with the department's larger plans, says Miami Beach Police spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez. MBPD has a program called the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Strategy, which advocates that bushes and shrubs should not be more than one to two feet tall in vulnerable areas, he says. "[It's] a proactive approach to crime versus a reactive approach," he says.

Elsewhere in South Florida, concerned citizens are pushing for a similar plan. In Fort Lauderdale, some residents recently protested when they noticed freshly planted sea grapes along A1A in May.

Unlike Miami Beach, which has housed sea grapes for almost 40 years, that swath of Fort Lauderdale Beach is relatively new to the trees. Planted earlier this year, the sea grapes are part of Broward County's $11.8 million initiative to revamp the A1A promenade after it collapsed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. County officials stress that the trees will act as a physical barrier against hurricanes, storm surge, and high tides — arguments echoed by environmentalists in Miami.

But some residents say Miami Beach Police have the right perspective. Not only will the trees block the ocean view, they argue, but also they will attract illicit activity.

"Our concern is safety," says Brian Donaldson, president of the Birch Beach Park Homeowners Association, which represents residents just northeast of downtown Fort Lauderdale. "If [the sea grapes] are allowed to grow [into] more than a three-to-four-foot shrub, they will become an issue for vagrancies, illegal activities, and for people to hide behind and jump out when people are walking on the new promenade or using the beach shower."

Nagy, the Fort Lauderdale Beach resident, was so outraged that he emailed city and county commissioners about the sea grapes. In one message, Nagy writes, "The sea grapes will be a haven for the illegal sex and drug activity... When the nighttime activity starts, the residents are supposed to be up all night calling the police and wait[ing] an hour for them to show up... The hypodermic needles and used condoms were the greatest hazards... Sea grapes are flat-plain stupid!"

Nagy, Donaldson, and other critics have suggested using seagrass or sea oats — which don't provide such a dark, dense covering — instead of sea grapes.

But Broward leaders say sea grapes are the only environmentally sound option.

"We cannot have a stable dune system without the right... material, and according to our beach project director, the strongest and most stable material for the base of the dunes is the sea grapes," County Commissioner Chip LaMarca wrote to Nagy.

Nicole Sharp, the natural resources administrator for Broward County, explains that the sea grape is one of the best plant species for stabilizing dunes and preventing beach erosion. She says the suggestion to use seagrass is "juvenile."

"This specific area of shoreline is seriously eroded," Sharp says. "[The sea grape trees] represent a type of vegetation that is hearty and fortifies the area. [They are] very resistant to the harsh environment and are extremely successful at stabilizing the dune."

There might be room for compromise between crime-concerned residents and dune-protecting environmentalists — Broward officials have told Nagy that the trees will be pruned to grow no higher than four feet. But he is skeptical.

"Nobody from the city or county will maintain anything," Nagy says.

On the other side of the debate in Miami Beach, environmentalist Rodrigues vows to continue fighting so the sea grapes can grow as nature intended. He hopes to one day walk to the beach and look out into a wild thicket of sea grapes again.

"I'd love to go back and see that all the trees have regrown," Rodrigues says, "to see the environment as it was created."


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