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Residents upset over Palmer Trinity’s cleared trees

Palmer Trinity School had a permit to bulldoze trees on its property, but will have to replant when the construction begins



About 1,400 mango trees and various species of palms were removed from land beside the Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay last week, causing an uproar among residents who said they are concerned about the animals who have inhabited the grove for 39 years.

The site is where the school hopes to expand, something neighbors have been opposed to.

“This wholesale destruction of the grove will displace the nesting peacocks, destroy their eggs, displace the fox that lives in the grove, the burrowing owl, many other animals and birds, and destroy any possible archaeological remains,” said Betty Pegram, president of Concerned Citizens of Old Cutler, a neighborhood organization, in an e-mail.

Animals aside, the school is unpopular in Palmetto Bay right now because many residents oppose its plans to expand and add hundreds of new students.
But Palmer Trinity appears to have been within its rights to cut down the trees: The school had a permit from the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management.
The school’s land-use attorney, Stan Price of the law firm of Bilzin Sumberg, said the construction wouldn’t be possible with the trees in the way.
“This is our private property,” he said. “If there were animals in that vegetation, we’re sorry about that. But there is a statute that forbids relocating the peacocks. We are not to remove all the vegetation from the site and that is totally consistent with what we have done.”
The permit, issued March 11, allows the school to remove 1,878 trees over the course of a year. The permit also includes a landscape master plan, which said the school must add 616,097 square feet of replacement canopy; of which at least more than half must be native to South Florida.
“We are keeping several rows of mango trees and are not removing native vegetation without the approval by DERM,” Price said.
The residents’ had hoped the village government would block the tree removal, but village spokesman Bill Kress said DERM’s permission trumps the village’s capabilities.
“While the village has legislation related to trees and landscaping, the issuance of tree-removal permits by DERM would supersede any action by this village/municipality,” he said.
At a March 16 town hall meeting, residents eager to speak out about the agricultural and traffic concerns surrounding the Palmer Trinity expansion were met with signs placed on the doors and elevators surrounding the Edward & Arlene Feller Community Room at Ludovici Park. The signs, drafted under advice of village attorney Eve Boutsis, let the public know the council would not comment on anything regarding the school due to ongoing hearings.
Certain municipal zoning decisions are “quasi-judicial,” meaning that council members are supposed to make decisions based on evidence presented at a public hearing.
“Quite a few residents immediately got up and left. Those of us who stayed, simply to ask about the village hiring a traffic planner, were told that nothing relating to Palmer’s property would be discussed,” said Carol Vega, a resident who lives about 10 blocks away from the school. “I raised my hand and inquired as to what the village would be doing concerning the legally protected peacocks; since it is nesting season, it would be similar to a Holocaust of peacocks and fox owls. No one answered me.”
Palmer Trinity wants to expand onto the 32 acres it acquired eight years ago beside the existing school, which had been there since 1972. Plans include building a chapel, a gymnasium and a library/administrative building, as well as increasing its enrollment over three decades.
“As a not-for-profit institution, we try to maximize our resources for the education of our students and therefore are removing our trees in the most cost-effective way possible,” said Sean Murphy, Palmer Trinity’s head of schools.
Under the U.S. Constitution, government agencies cannot unreasonably restrict a property owner’s land without paying for the loss. Yet this rule often becomes problematic for local officials who also want to keep their citizens happy. About 800 people showed up for the May 2010 public hearing on the school expansion, and most were against the project, concerned with the increased traffic, noise and loss of land.
“There are always two sides of the story,” said Suzanne Gottlieb Calleja, spokeswoman for the school. “But ours has been continually drowned out by a small, vocal group of neighbors who simply have been unwilling to work with us to find a mutually satisfactory solution. We have been good neighbors, and we will continue to be good neighbors.”
However, residents have something different to say about the school.
“Palmer Trinity has proven it yet another time that they have no regard for the neighbors, the environment or any agreements they have made with the residents and village,” said Betty Pegram.
Calleja said Palmer Trinity has actually boosted the amount of vegetation surrounding the existing school, planting more than 200 trees on their original 22-acre campus over the past two years, as well as an additional 1,200 trees and shrubs.
“Our head of maintenance and facilities, Julian Rosas, spoke with a very well-respected naturalist, Todd Hardwick, and he guided us through this process, suggesting that we do not touch the birds,” she said. “He advised us that the peacocks are roamers and eventually will flock to the remaining trees.”
The removal of the mango groves is the latest conflict in an almost six-year battle between Palmer Trinity and the Palmetto Bay residents and government.
Last month, three Miami-Dade Circuit judges ruled unanimously that the village acted without substantial evidence when it cut the Palmer Trinity enrollment cap to 900 students and set a 30-year moratorium on further expansion.
It was the second time the school successfully appealed a village council decision: The council rejected the expansion altogether in 2008, a decision that Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal called “arbitrary” and “unreasonable.”
“For the first time, I am not proud of our village. I am disgusted with the politics and with our own politicians not speaking up because of orders from our village attorney,” said Carol Vega, regarding the tree removal. “I am only one of a very large group of residents who feel this way, and I am one who will never forget.”

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