Tree Guru Photographs Coconut Grove's Old Canopy Being Wrecked by Developers

Few people in Miami know more about trees than Bob Brennan. In 1969, the Coconut Grove native founded Brennan’s Tree Service, a tree care and landscaping company to inspect, feed, and prune trees. Now an arborist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Brennan is one of Miami’s foremost experts in tree moving, protection, and care. He jokes that he can “get to the root” of any tree-related problem.

But over the past few years, the tree guru has grown increasingly incensed over the way trees are treated in his neighborhood. It seems every new development results in beautiful old trees being harmed or killed, he says. Once well-known for its verdant canopy, over the past decade, the Coconut Grove tree cover has grown thin and sickly.

And according to Brennan, that’s largely the fault of Miami's code enforcement. “I have noticed a severe lack of enforcement of city codes to defend our trees on construction sites,” Brennan wrote in a 20-page letter to the Miami's mayor and commissioners last month. “I recently had a conversation with an inspector who said he is doing his job. I strenuously disagree.”

Brennan is not alone in that belief. Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes the Grove, told New Times he's so worried about the state of trees in the area that he's introducing legislation to enforce existing protections for trees and mandate stricter penalties when they do illegally come down.

To prove his point, Brennan recently drove through Coconut Grove — from Shipping Avenue and Gifford Lane to Natoma Street — taking photographs of construction sites. He captured blatant disregard of the city’s tree code, which states, for instance, that roots must not be cut within ten feet of the trunk and that no elevation change can take place within the “root protection zone.”

Here’s a glimpse at what he found:
Bird Road and Aviation Avenue: “This is not protection — just damage to the root system,” Brennan says. “These guys must think the orange fence protects the tree.”
Lincoln Avenue and Blain Street: A gumbo limbo tree that was moved by a construction team — “Not successfully,” Brennan says. (The tree, which should be big and beautiful, now appears to be dead.)
Lincoln Avenue and Blain Street: Construction fill was added to the soil. “It looks like the crushed concrete from the buildings across the street,” Brennan says. “Nothing grows in concrete dust and chips.”
Lincoln Avenue, west of Kirk Street: A 50-foot royal palm that did not get root protection. “This tree will die soon,” Brennan says.
SW 28th Street: ”A scar on the canopy,” he says. “I guess the city likes this?”

Adds Brennan: “If the city employed inspectors who understood how construction affects trees, serious problems could be avoided and trees could thrive instead of being killed by ignorance and greed." 

Commissioner Russell says changing the city's rules to force code inspectors and developers to take tree damage more seriously might be the only way to protect old growth amid another building boom.

“It’s a huge priority for us that we have a canopy that is protected,” Russell says.