Four of the five Wellington Village Council members were on hand for a public hearing Wednesday about a controversial canal clearing project already in progress.
The meeting was attended by about 120 residents who were angry that trees and other plants are being removed from the canal rights of way behind their homes.
Although the council could not take action at the meeting, members promised that the village would not proceed further until the council had considered the comments they had heard that evening.
The item was not on the agenda for the council’s regular meeting Tuesday, but about 50 residents, mostly from the Paddock Park and Sugar Pond Manor neighborhoods, attended anyway to speak during the time for public comment.
None of the residents spoke in favor of the project, which is part of an effort to improve flood control in the village. The residents were angry that their objections had not been taken seriously.
Village Manager Paul Schofield pointed out that the project had begun in 2008, when the village was mandated to reverse its drainage to the north, away from its previous outfall into the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and explained that the canal rights of way needed to be restored to enable heavy equipment access to the canals to remove obstructions in the aftermath of a storm.
Schofield also pointed out that the first five phases of the project had been completed, and future phases would have to be approved by the council because contracts had not been awarded.
“We’re here about a project that is not very popular, and it never is when we get working in the rights of way,” Schofield told those attending Wednesday night.
Schofield added that village staff had visited about 35 homes that day and would visit any individual’s property if the resident had concerns.
On Tuesday, Public Works Director Mitch Fleury said the surface water management program includes roadway, swale and culvert reconstruction, as well as canal clearing, pointing out that the cleaning and maintenance of many of the canals in the drainage system had not been done for 30 years, and that many of the culverts were at the end of their useful life.
In 2009, inspections revealed several areas of concern, including clogged pipes and obstructed outfalls limiting the carrying capacity to only 50 percent in some areas. Repairs have included canal clearing, culvert replacement, vegetation removal, creation of storage areas and pump station upgrades.
“We went through every neighborhood,” Fleury said, with workers cleaning, repairing or replacing culverts. “We started from oldest to newest. Our ultimate goal is to go through 100 percent of Wellington’s drainage system, which we feel we can have accomplished in the next three to four years.”
He said the village already has done an extensive amount of canal cleaning, starting with the easiest projects.
“A lot of that is what we call low-hanging fruit, where we were able to go in and get to these fairly easily, and now in the last couple of years, you’ve noticed that we’ve had to dig with dump trucks. Every bit of that dirt, there’s no place to put it. We’ve had to load it into a dump truck.”
He said the project is currently in Phase 5, the Sugar Pond Manor area.
The objective is to clear the canal banks to 25 feet to allow equipment access in the event of an emergency. So far, workers have cleared about 8 miles of canal banks, using a barge with a loader to knock trees and brush into the canal and remove it using the barge.
He also pointed out that the 25-foot right of way is owned by the village, and that one tree or other obstruction could block access to several thousand feet of canal bank. Fleury added that of the approximately 300 homes along the banks, about 140 have obstructions.
Director of Operations Jim Barnes said the affected residents receive notice several times, starting 12 weeks before the project is to begin, but several residents denied that that has happened.
Curt Siegmeister of Barberry Court said he was against the methodology being used, but not necessarily the intent, which is to mitigate flooding.
“I commend this council for the Herculean task for being the first in the canals’ history to try and reclaim them,” Siegmeister said. “Every single person supports this project. What we’re opposed to is removing every piece of foliage within 25 feet on both sides of the canals.”
He also questioned the usefulness of a canal bank for heavy equipment in flood situations, where the bank would be soggy, if not underwater.
Joseph Holt said some of the homes back up to rental property and that removing the foliage denied those residents their privacy, and pointed out that he had received permits to install a hedge.
“We need to compromise and find alternatives,” Holt said. “We already survived hurricanes and flooding, and honestly, it hasn’t been that bad.”
Carol Brody said her canal bank has already been done and that village workers destroyed 15 years’ worth of landscaping, including four pine trees.
“Our back yard was our pride and joy,” Brody said. “Our canal has been raped of a number of trees that had graced the area. What tree city would agree to such a boneheaded project?”
On Wednesday, council members tried to assure residents that they had listened to their complaints and they would take appropriate action.
Vice Mayor John Greene said he regretted that some residents believed they had been ignored or misled by the village.
“We make decisions that are brought from staff to us,” Greene said. “We don’t get to know how this impacts you on a daily basis and how it affects your lives unless you come to meetings like this or to council meetings.”
He said he was there to work with the residents.
“Whether you like me or not, I work for all of you,” Greene said. “That’s my job, and this is clearly something that is having an impact on every single one of you in this room tonight.”