About 22 Washingtonian palm trees that line Aero Club Drive will remain in place until the Wellington Village Council can weigh in on whether they should be cut down, village officials said this week.
The palm trees, which stand as tall as 70 feet and cost the village about $40,000 a year to maintain, were slated to be cut down earlier this week. However, complaints from residents caused several council members to ask that the matter be discussed.
The palm trees have lined Aero Club Drive for many years but have interfered with Florida Power & Light’s power lines, as well as moving water during heavy rainfall, Village Manager Paul Schofield told council members at a meeting Tuesday, Feb. 11.
“We’ve been talking for a number of years about the [palm trees],” he said. “There have been some issues. They were installed in the swale line. In very heavy rainfall, we can’t get water down those swales. It goes out in the street.”
Schofield told council members that as part of drainage plans to prevent flooding, staff planned to remove the existing trees, rebuild the swale and replace the trees, although not with Washingtonian palms.
“This is part of a pilot program based on the needs we identified after Tropical Storm Isaac,” he said. “We may bring it back to you and see if the council wants to do more.”
Schofield said removing the palm trees would also keep them from affecting the nearby power lines, and FP&L would remove them at no cost.
“When we went to them and told them we were thinking of removing those trees, in the interest of preserving their power lines, they said they want to take the trees down where the power lines are,” he said. “Since they are out there, they will take them all down. They will do that at no cost to us to protect their power lines.”
However, several council members wanted more discussion of the tree removal.
“I raised the matter at the last council meeting because I was concerned this was being done at a staff level,” Vice Mayor Howard Coates said.
Typically, landscaping decisions are handled by village staff, but Coates said this week that he had asked Schofield to halt the removal of the trees to allow the council to consider the issue. “I see this as more of a policy than a staff decision,” Coates said.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig also asked that the trees be left in until the council could consider the matter.
“This is an issue people really care about,” she said. “I’ve had more than 25 people contact me about it. I think it’s something we need to vet completely before we take action. If it’s just a matter of maintenance, we need to address it. If it’s a true engineering problem, we need to see what other options there are.”
Councilman Matt Willhite said he believes the decision should be left to village staff.
“This is within the village manager’s purview,” he said. “This issue was primarily brought up because of the cost. We spend $40,000 a year just to maintain the trees. Someone from the village has to go pick up palm fronds every day.”
Further, he said, FPL has complained about the trees interfering with power lines. “Whenever a strong wind blows, the palm fronds blow onto the power lines,” Willhite said. “It causes power outages and issues for the village.”
Schofield told council members that with the palms so close to power lines, surrounding neighborhoods such as the Aero Club and Lakefield experience power failures more often and for longer periods of time.
“On most other streets in Wellington, we average about six momentary power outages a year due to trees,” he said. “In that area, it’s about 60 a year. It’s ten times more than the average.”
He added, however, that the biggest issue is getting water down the swale. “They are planted right in the middle,” Schofield said.
Willhite said Wellington is trying to be proactive in its infrastructure to prevent future flooding.
“We are digging up and re-grading a lot of our swales to help with the drainage,” he said. “Right now, people aren’t complaining that we have a drainage problem, but we could get hit with a storm like Tropical Storm Isaac. We want to be proactive and get ahead of this.”
Coates said he believes the main issue is the power lines. “I don’t know so much about the drainage problem,” he said. “I’m not sure that argument holds water.”
He would like to see the issue come before the council.
“This would totally change the aesthetic of the neighborhood,” Coates said. “And if there are problems and they do need to be taken down, I want to make sure the public fully understands the issue.”
Gerwig said she is opposed to tearing them down.
“They have a long way to go to explain to me why we would need to do this,” Gerwig said. “We will never to be able to replace that look. Even if we put in new Washingtonians, it would take years for them to grow back. I think we need to find out what the real problem is and see if there’s another way to handle it.”
Willhite noted that plans were to replace the palm trees with trees that are more easily maintained but will still be aesthetically pleasing.
“They will be about 12 to 14 feet tall,” he said. “It will help hide the power lines and people’s yards.”
Coates said the issue probably would be put on an agenda in March, but no official date had been set.