ITID Board Asserts Authority To Remove Swale Vegetation

The Indian Trail Improvement District Board of Supervisors held a lengthy discussion Wednesday about easement obstructions, especially plant growth in swales that hamper drainage in The Acreage.

The board’s challenge is that ITID staff is retrofitting many swales where overgrowth and some large trees have been allowed to grow in the swales, and some residents do not want the trees removed.

ITID Attorney Frank Palin had been asked to prepare a summary on the district’s authority to maintain and/or remove vegetation in the swales.

“It really isn’t summarizing at all,” Palin said. “The board has unlimited authority to maintain and operate its works within [the] physical boundaries of its easements.”

Supervisor Ralph Bair noted that when the district retrofits swales, it does both sides of the slope.

“It seems to me that in certain areas, we’re only maintaining the road side of the slope, not the property owner’s side of the slope,” he said. “Is that going to be the norm now?”

He pointed out that a resident at the meeting had asked to have his side of the swale mowed.

ITID President Betty Argue said that the district makes it clear that it is the landowners’ responsibility to maintain their side of the swale. Argue added that she had talked to District Manager Rob Robinson about a change in the slope elevations.

“We have some residents, such as myself, who have complained about the fact that when it was changed, you can’t ride your lawnmower anymore because it was too steep,” she said. “Now, it becomes an issue for the district, because this resident is not maintaining their own swale.”

Robinson said the slope ratio depends on the elevation of the property and the street.

“We have a specific criterion that we use in order to get the drainage out of that line,” he said. “We always try go get a maintainable slope at three to one, and that can be done on ridable mowers. Some people feel that is unsafe, but a minimum three-to-one slope is maintainable with a standard riding lawnmower.”

Bair said that his swale angle had been increased during a retrofit, but he was able to cut it with a low-riding mower.

“In a retrofit, that’s going to happen because a lot of the swales are filled in,” he said.

Supervisor Tim Sayre acknowledged the district’s ability to maintain the swales but questioned the district’s ability to charge a resident who willfully plants trees in the swales double the cost of removing vegetative growth.

He explained that some residents bought homes that already had trees and/or plants in the swales.

“They didn’t willfully put it there, so I don’t believe that we can charge them double of what it costs,” Sayre said, explaining that it should be absorbed by the unit of development, because the improved drainage is to the overall benefit of the unit.

Argue disagreed, explaining that there are some areas that have become so overgrown that the expense to the district to remove it will be astronomical.

“It’s going to have a tax impact,” she said. “Understand that what you’re suggesting is going down a very slippery slope.”

Argue explained that some residents who refuse to remove their trees and plants are obstructing the district’s responsibility to maintain the swales, and it has the right to charge them for the removal.

“I know for a fact that there are some residents who plant bushes and trees in our easements, and that is an obstruction,” she said. “We’re not code enforcers. We only enforce it when there is a problem, but if we know that a resident has willfully planted trees in an Indian Trail easement, then that should not be the burden of the residents in the unit to maintain or to remove.”

One property owner had asked for a waiver on having a tree in his swale removed, but Bair said the larger a tree gets, the harder it is to get out.

“The roots get out to the area worse, and as they rot, they collapse, and then the whole swale goes,” Bair said. “If this is a seven- or eight-year-old tree, and it’s retrofit time, get the thing out now. I’m sorry, no waivers for anybody.”

Argue said the practice in the past has been for staff not to remove what doesn’t need to be removed. This would be a policy change, she said.

“If we go and we’re doing the swale, and we notice that somebody’s got something in their easement, then we notify them that it has to be removed. No exemptions,” Argue said.

Bair said there cannot be exceptions. “Otherwise, you’d be giving exceptions to this person, that person,” he said. “That’s selective enforcement.”

Sayre said that historically, most of the homeowners have maintained their own swales and do not want the heavy machinery of the district ripping up their landscaping.

Bair said that when the district had private companies cutting the swales on the main roads, they cut both sides of the swales.

“Some people didn’t like it, others did, but they looked nice,” he said. “It became expensive, but we were trying to hire people during the recession.”

Argue noted that it had been brought up that the district needs to replace mowing equipment over the next several years.

Robinson said the slope mowers are high-maintenance equipment.

“I can speak with the South Florida Water Management District,” he said. “We were charged under $20 per acre to flat mow. We couldn’t do that. It would cost us double that… Slope mowers are a bit more expensive because the machines are more intricate, and they’re more failure prone as well.”

Bair pointed out that a slope mower also requires a more experienced operator.

Robinson explained that he had been informed by the legal staff that according to the Palm Beach County Uniform Land Development Code, ITID is exempt from acquiring permits for removing vegetation from canal and drainage road easements.

“It has been up to the discretion of the crew chief as they go through if it has been outside of the normal flow,” Robinson said. “The problem is that trees are going to grow. What may be a six-inch caliper or 12-inch caliper now, in 20 years, it’s going to obstruct the flow.”