Keeping Pine Tree Drive's Pine Trees

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Keeping Pine Tree Drive's Pine Trees:

City developing plan for aging canopy

The Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board is used to making decisions on historic buildings. This week they were informed another historic asset was in danger – the trees behind the name of one of the City's most recognizable and traversed streets, Pine Tree Drive.
Design and Preservation Manager, Debbie Tackett, said Pine Tree Drive is an historic site, designated as such because of several monuments as well as the Australian pine trees that line the median. Between 2011-2014, she said, a structural assessment was conducted of the pine trees after one of the trees fell into the right of way. “Fortunately, it fell early in the morning and no one was injured.”
After the incident, several trees that were not structurally stable were removed. The Australian pines have been listed as an invasive species due to negative effects to the ground soil and Miami-Dade County, which owns the road, will not permit the trees to be replaced in kind and has turned maintenance of the trees over to the City. Tackett told the Board, “The County has said ‘They’re your problem. We’re not supportive of these trees.’”
When Hurricane Irma caused further damage, another assessment was conducted. Arborist Danny Lippi told the Board, the trees are “twice as old as they should be. The lifespan of these trees is around 50 years. They’re over 100 years old so they’re really past their lifespan.”
In addition, he said, the trees are experiencing disease and structural problems. “The health on these trees is fine … but the structure is failing … Decay hollows at the base which is where you don’t want to have a structural failure because that means the whole thing literally falls over. All trees get to a point where they’re too big for themselves. Some trees will get there in a matter of decades. Some trees will get there in a matter of centuries. These trees are getting to that point.”
Because the trees are on a busy road, he said, “There’s a very high likelihood of failure and a very high likelihood of impact.”
Lippi knows the trees well. He said he’s been inspecting them since 2008. It’s not all bad news, he said. “These trees can be retained in our opinion but they have to be aggressively pruned.”
Betsy Wheaton, the City’s Environment and Sustainability Director said, the City is putting together a master plan for the trees, but wanted the Board to be aware of their current condition and the need to prune them significantly.
After Irma, she said, two trees were removed that were “presenting an imminent danger” and one more will have to be removed. The city conducts ongoing maintenance every 2-3 years at a cost of about $200,000 per maintenance session, but recent pruning in January 2017 wasn’t enough, hence the need for this additional pruning. Wheaton said the City wants to come up with a comprehensive plan so that replacement of the trees “is not piecemeal and also so we are using money most efficiently ... We’d like to get trees in there today that have time to grow larger.”
The problem, Lippi said, “Australian pine prevents other trees from successfully growing next to them” so it’s not as easy as replacing the trees one by one with other species.
Tackett said, “We are going to lose a few more trees soon. We wanted to advise the community and the Board that is likely going to happen.” The goal, she said, is to work with the Urban Forrester and Wheaton’s Environment and Sustainability team to develop a long-term plan.
"What’s going to happen when we lose these trees is we’re gonna have holes,” Tackett said. “New trees will not be able to be planted. The Australian pine creates a toxic soil condition. So you cannot remove one tree and replant something new … this is going to keep happening so over the next ten years, we lose another six or seven trees. We’re going to be left with a bunch of holes that nothing can be replanted in because whatever we would plant would be killed by the toxic soil.”
“In order to get ahead of this issue,” she said, “we’re going to develop a plan to bring back to this Board that would replace larger sections at a time so we’re not left with these holes in this historic roadway.”
Lippi added, “We are trying to preserve and maintain the overall look of Pine Tree Drive.”
Board members lamented the potential loss of the trees and indicated they wanted the street’s character to be maintained. Chair Stevan Pardo said, “To hear this conversation, it’s like somebody’s dying and it’s very disturbing as a resident.”
“Maybe we can find a way of making this thing work longer,” he said. He acknowledged the maintenance issue and the cost to maintaining the trees on a more regular basis, “but if there’s a way that this can be done before you scrap all of the trees there I would be in favor of having that conversation”. He noted if, ultimately, a decision was reached that the trees needed to removed “because they’re toxic … I would not certainly be standing in the way … but I’m not ready to make that decision and I’m certainly not ready to support that decision.”
Board member Kirk Paskal who grew up in Sanibel said that town also faced a decision about its Australian pines after Hurricane Charley. “They were devastated,” he said. Speaking of Periwinkle Way, he said, “[The trees] defined the entire drive and parkway of that island and, ultimately, they removed them and ended up with something better in the end. I’m not saying that’s the ideal solution for us” but he encouraged the Board to “be open minded and keep in mind being environmentally responsible”.
Lippi said the first priority is to “move forward with the pruning in an effort to try to preserve” the trees. Tackett emphasized, “Nobody’s saying we’re going to wholesale take down these trees now or next year … Living, breathing things die and these are way past their lifespan so we’re lucky…  we can keep some of them. We’re going to lose some this year. We’re probably going to lose more next year. The goal is to develop a plan in case another storm comes and we lose all 50.”
The HPB was not opposed to developing a plan but recommended the City "maintain the health of the existing trees to the greatest extent possible through a proper maintenance plan”.
Photo: Pine Tree Drive, 1914. Carl G. Fisher Album. City of Miami Beach Digital Archives/FIU Libraries

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