Real Estate

Notre Dame D'Haiti Church Expansion Threatens Ancient Oaks, Angers Nature Lovers

Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.
Psalm 96:10-13

Last Friday the Herald wrote a fawning article about Notre Dame D'Haiti's plan for a new $3.2 million church. The piece contained nearly 1,000 kind words, 16 photos, and a little intro graphic titled "Sacred Ground."

But it left out the fact that Notre Dame's plan calls for cutting down at least seven of the churchyard's giant, ancient oak trees -- not to mention the anger that has caused among Miami's nature lovers.

"These trees were sprouts when the Civil War happened," says arborist Bob Brennan. "I'm amazed the city would even consider this building permit."

The grove of a dozen or so oak trees -- some of them estimated to be some 150 years old -- is likely the only of its kind remaining in Little Haiti.

Church leaders have applied for a permit to cut down at least seven of the oak trees (marking them with red spray paint) and move a large mango tree, although Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary says the plan isn't finalized.

But the likelihood of the grove's destruction is already dismaying Brennan and others.

"I don't understand who could even consider cutting down a tree that's 100 years old," says Ted Baker, a landscape architect for the City of Miami. "Whoever suggested to the folks at the church that that's OK to do, it's unconscionable."

"As a Christian myself I find a gross contradiction between the teachings of the Bible about preserving God's creatures and what they are proposing to do," says Baker, pointing out that the trees are also home to birds and squirrels.

Yet church officials say they are damned if they do cut down the trees, damned if they don't.

"We have had people sitting on the ground under the sun and rain worshiping God," says Jean-Mary. "We cannot keep those people in the sun and the rain. We cannot turn them away."

"We have been fighting for so long for this church," he says. "Why can't we build it? We are not doing anything wrong. We are building a church!"

Jean-Mary insists that the church is trying to save as many of the trees as possible while building a structure large enough for its 1,500 parishioners, plus a parking lot mandated by the city.

"We are trying to act in good faith," he says. "We are trying to save the biggest tree on the grounds."

"In order to build the church, some trees have to be removed," Jean-Mary argues. "How many times do they do that to build a K-mart? Or a Wal-mart?"

But whether a Big Box of cheap Chinese goods or a Big Box o' Jesus, some nature lovers are ready to protest all the same. Brennan says he will lead at least 300 people to City Hall to denounce the plan unless the church turns another leaf.

Cutting down these trees -- some with trunks thicker than 6 feet in diameter -- is a mistake that neither the city nor the Creator himself can undo for another century and a half, he points out.

"We need to have development and we need to have growth and all that good stuff," Brennan says. "But we have to do it intelligently."

You can remove an old tree and replace it with a sapling or two, he says. "But if you can't replace that tree and its growth in your lifetime, then you really need to rethink your building plans."