Cut It Out

Unlike much of Florida, Atlantic Beach hasn’t butchered most of its native vegetation. Instead of the Fantasy Florida landscape that predominates elsewhere, the city can boast that its yards and public rights of way contain native magnolias, live oaks, cypresses and the Florida State Tree, the native sabal palm. Some likely predate development, others planted during Atlantic Beach’s first land boom in the early 1900s, but the city is proud of its trees and strives to protect them.

Which is why Atlantic Beach native David Pridgen was especially chagrined when he pulled into his driveway the first weekday after Tropical Storm Beryl blew through and saw a JEA subcontractor feeding a large pile of tree limbs into a wood chipper.

Pridgen, a University of Florida Master Naturalist, understands the importance of the city’s native trees, and is especially sensitive to specimens like the 60-inch-diameter sweet bay magnolia in front of his family’s home, which has been there since his dad built the house in 1960.

“They just went at it,” says Pridgen, 60. “They over-pruned it, they didn’t cut it at the joints. I think it was rash. I do, indeed.”

In the past, when JEA needed to trim Pridgen’s tree limbs away from power lines, the utility left a notice on his front door and gave him an opportunity to meet with a utility arborist to discuss how the tree would be trimmed. That didn’t happen this time. And Pridgen’s house wasn’t the only place where the tree-trimming caused alarm. Although JEA cleared the tree-trimming project in advance with city Public Works Director Rick Carper, he says he expected workers to trim no more than 4 to 6 feet of branches. In fact, in several cases, they cut as much as 10 feet.

The scalped appearance prompted Carper to order the JEA subcontractor to stop work on Thursday, May 31 and for JEA to suspend all tree-trimming efforts.

Like all electric companies with wires on telephone poles, JEA regularly prunes trees under its lines to protect the power grid. In storms, according to the JEA website, 99 percent of power outages are caused by trees damaging power lines. Although JEA says its tree maintenance is done “under the close direction of JEA’s foresters and certified arborists,” that does not appear to be the case.

Carper says crews hacked palm trees, leaving just a sprout of fronds, contrary to arborists’ guidelines for healthy trimming. After stopping the project, Carper rode around the city with JEA for two hours on Friday, June 1, noting where trees had been over-pruned or improperly pruned and discussing how re-pruning could save the trees. If the trees can’t be saved, Carper says, the city of Atlantic Beach will require JEA to pay to replace the trees.

“Some of the trees may have been trimmed so severely that they will need to be taken out,” he says. Assessing the damage early last week, Carper says that he thinks the trees will survive their amputations.

Though the contractor and crew started on the west side of the city, they pruned trees along one of the city’s main corridors — First Street (or Ocean Boulevard) from Ahern Street north, including a stand of sabal palms near the former City Hall, Pridgen’s magnolia and his neighbor’s red cedar. Carper says JEA pruned 100 to 200 trees and had that many more still to do.

Pridgen says the pruning on his property was severe enough that he fears the magnolia may die. If that happens, he notes, it will cost the city $12,000 to $13,000 to have it removed. A JEA arborist has promised to meet with Pridgen to look at how the tree can be doctored and pruned to keep it healthy. His willingness to consider how to save the tree satisfied Pridgen.

“I’m waiting for him to get back to me,” Pridgen says, “and I trust he will. He fully admits they over-pruned and he’s going to come out here with a crew and try to save my tree.”

But for him, the tree pruning is a metaphor that speaks to the relationship that the consolidated city of Jacksonville should respect when dealing with the independent city of Atlantic Beach. Atlantic Beach isn’t Jacksonville, he notes, and the city-owned municipality JEA needs to remember that.

“If they continue doing this kind of stuff, pretty soon they will just keep encroaching and taking more and more from us.”

Susan Cooper E

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