Upset by the steadily increasing number of trees that will need to be removed from Coquina Beach, the Board of County Commissioners toyed with the idea of canceling the parking lot improvement project.
Billed as a stormwater improvement renovation, the project has been met with fierce criticism from beachgoers and city of Bradenton Beach officials who said there were too many trees marked for removal.
Commissioners voted June 6 to move forward with removing the six trees needed to clear a path for a new stormwater pipe, but Chad Butzow, director of the county’s public works department, informed them Tuesday that a whopping 230 more trees may need to be pulled out of the ground.
Butzow updated the board on the number of Australian pine trees that would need to be removed from the area. There are 103 trees that need to be either pruned or removed from the area in the first phase of the project, or else they become a public safety hazard, according to a certified arborist.
The second phase would see about 129 more trees removed, bringing the total to 232. After the project’s completion, 759 Australian pines would remain, mostly between the sand and the parking lot, based on current calculations.
County staff described how the invasive Australian pine trees are already a safety hazard. Their shallow roots make them susceptible to high winds and the county has history of claims results from falls and vehicle damage. Beachgoers have argued that the shade they provide is a major attraction.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore said removing so many trees would “totally change the character of the island.”
“That would turn these beaches into the same sterile beaches to the north and south of us,” she said, urging her fellow commissioners to consider canceling the contract.
Commissioner Stephen Jonsson disagreed, stating that he couldn’t see how fewer trees in the parking lot would affect the island’s charm.
“I don’t think we’re ruining the beaches like some of our fellow commissioners think,” Jonsson said. “We still have that row of pine trees. We still have the path. All we’re doing is repaving a parking lot.”
“I don’t think we’re really changing the feel of that beach. I think over time, Mother Nature is going to change it with the Australian pines,” he continued.
The information presented at Tuesday’s meeting was completely new for the board, Commissioner Betsy Benac said.
“I’m not saying the improvements aren’t a good thing, but we need to be open and transparent about the full project,” she said.
When staff first introduced the renovation at a work session in September, Butzow said they were unaware of a significant impact to the trees. At that time, they knew 13 trees of the 991 in the area would need to be removed.
But the arborist explained to staff that the roots of the Australian pines are shallow and clipping any amount makes them even more susceptible to falling over during high wind events.
“The roots look like twigs and sticks on the ground,” Butzow explained. “We were into the project before we realized how those roots would affect the design.”
Commissioners approved the project, which is set to pave the parking lot with pervious concrete to reduce widespread flooding concerns, at a meeting on Jan. 15. Construction began in April.
The first phase of the project, which is taking place on the south end of Coquina, does not have much wiggle room to allow for a redeisgn, Butzow explained, but the second phase to the north does. The vast majority of those trees could be saved by shifting the pavement east, away from the Gulf of Mexico.
“Phase 2 lends itself to a lot more engineer options,” he said.
“We could save 80 to 90 percent of those trees, but they have to be trimmed,” added Mike Sturm, an engineer on the project. “We can save those trees, if that’s what you want to do.”
Commissioners voted 4-2 to approve a motion that would replace the trees removed with other salt-tolerant shade trees on a 1 to 1 basis. Ahead of phase 2, the board will also host a work session to confirm the exact number of trees to be removed and begin working on a complete landscaping plan for both phases.
Whitmore and Benac cast dissenting votes. Commissioner Reggie Bellamy was not present.