Coral Way neighbors save corridor’s historic trees

By Madison Fantozzi

This story published in the Miami Herald’s North East Neighbors on Sunday, November 24, 2013. You can also read online:

State highway officials have backed off of plans to remove five trees and trim many others on Miami’s scenic Coral Way.

The Florida Department of Transportation was planning to remove five banyans from the median and possibly up to 61 black olive trees from the side of the road between Southwest 13th and 37th avenues. The banyans would have been replaced with ficus; FDOT had no immediate plans to replace the black olives.

But neighbors complained, and after a last-minute meeting with residents and elected leaders, FDOT agreed not to remove any trees for the moment. The agency still plans to trim trees to provide clearance for tall trucks, however.

FDOT’s original plan was estimated to cause a 50 percent loss of tree canopy on the street. The agency is now reassessing how much canopy will be lost under the revised plan.

The trees on the chopping block were deemed damaged or diseased, according to an FDOT arborist. FDOT has since agreed not to remove the 61 black olive trees for at least a year, and to work with a Miami city arborist to determine if the banyans need replacing. If both arborists agree that some should be replaced, a variance will be requested to allow planting of new banyans — an exception to Miami-Dade County’s ban on that species of tree, which is not native to Florida.

Coral Way’s banyans were first planted by Miami resident A.D. Barnes in 1929. In 1984, after FDOT proposed removing 15 of the trees, the Florida Legislature designated the street a historic highway, requiring a public hearing before trees could be removed using state money.

Since then, FDOT, with concerns over safety and room for trucks, periodically causes a stir whenever it proposes trimming or removing trees.

Eighty-six-year-old Josefina Sanchez-Pando says she has fought for the trees of Coral Way for over 40 years, having chained herself to the banyans in 1964 alongside four other women.

Today, Sanchez-Pando’s group of tree activists has grown much larger, with dozens of residents from Shenandoah and Silver Bluff who came out to a meeting Tuesday to voice their concerns about FDOT’s plans. Also at the meeting were Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez and state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, who represent the area.

Neighbors made it clear they didn’t want FDOT messing with their trees.

“I don’t want our tax dollars pulling up trees that are just fine the way they are,” said Sue Germaine, 61, of Silver Bluff.

“They are historical, they are majestic. People paint award-winning pictures of beautiful Coral Way,” added Sanchez-Pando, a Silver Bluff resident and board member of the neighborhood association. “These trees are older than I am, and no ficus will grow to be as beautiful as them.”

Kirk Hoosac, FDOT’s District 6 landscape architect, said it’s an issue of traffic safety.

The project would create 14.5-foot outside lane vertical clearance and 12.5-foot inside lane vertical clearance.

“The trees haven’t been maintained and are causing automobile accidents, especially interfering with the flow of trucks through the corridor,” said Hoosac.

Neighbors did not accept this as a viable reason and presented other solutions like minimal tree trimming or an alternative route for trucks.

“Why can’t we use the scalpel instead of the sword?” Germaine said.

Hoosac said FDOT explored an alternative to remove trucks from the corridor, but this was voted against by business owners.

“Tell them to get smaller trucks,” Sanchez-Pando said.

Germaine said the department is moving too quickly. “Once the trees are cut they are cut, and they’re irreplaceable.”

This sentiment is shared in Brickell, where trees have already been cut as part of a $1 million city project to replace damaged and diseased trees.

Miriam Merino, 49, member of Brickell Tree Watch said during Tuesday’s meeting that she is horrified to hear the same story.

“It’s sad to come here and hear the same exact thing, the same exact answers that I’m not sure we can believe,” Merino said. “It’s horrifying that cutting is the solution instead of taking the extra effort to maintain the trees.”

Hoosac promised to cooperate with residents and local officials.

“In the future, we will work with the city and the county to seek a win-win solution for everyone involved regarding the banyan trees,” Hoosac said.

Hoosac said in an email after the meeting that because of the community’s concern and input, the project will no longer remove or replace any trees, with modified plans to trim only dead and decaying, low-hanging branches — a temporary victory for the people of Coral Way.

“But we don’t want trimming. The branches are just as irreplaceable,” Sanchez-Pando said, receiving a high-five from Commissioner Suarez.

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