AM pardons Australian pines

Despite reports from plant experts that Australian pines are an invasive species and a Florida Department of Environmental Protection directive that trees should be removed from public property whenever possible, those in Anna Maria’s park fronting the Gulf of Mexico aren’t going anywhere — at least for now.

Commissioners voted 4-1 at their Nov. 17 meeting not to remove any Australian pines in the park, even though plant consultant Mike Miller and forestry expert Tim Eiseler recommended removal.

The vote also was contrary to a DEP order several years ago that municipalities remove Australian pines from public property “wherever possible.”

But commissioners Nov. 17 were in a dilemma.

The vote came after a litany of residents spoke in opposition to the city’s proposal to remove 6-8 Australian pines in Gulf Park between Willow Avenue and Cedar Avenue.

The tree proponents were vocal in their opposition to Commission Chair Chuck Webb’s call for removal. One tree proponent suggested Webb had an ulterior motive in changing the date of the meeting from Nov. 10 to Nov. 17.

In early September, commissioners discussed removal of the trees based on a master plan for the park by Miller, but first asked public works director George McKay to survey nearby residents on Willow and Cedar avenues for their opinion on removal.

McKay reported Nov. 17 that of the 67 opinion letters sent, 30 came back opposing removal of the trees.

Commissioners agreed they faced a dilemma.

Residents want the trees to stay, said Commissioner Dale Woodland.

On the other hand, said Webb, experts say the pines create a dead zone for undergrowth and are harmful to native plants.

“I like the way the pines look,” Webb said, but the city has a responsibility to all 1,300 residents to “do the right thing.”

He said the city should remove the trees and replace them with native trees that provide shade and allow native plants to grow in the surroundings.

Commissioner Jo Ann Mattick observed that a number of environmental groups have said the trees are invasive and should be removed, including the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

But those arguments were ignored.

Former City Commissioner Carol Ann Magill said there’s nothing wrong with the park the way it is, and the commission should not remove trees.

Chris Collins said if it’s working fine, don’t try to fix it.

Diane Caniff said an environmental expert six or seven years ago reviewed the park and said don’t remove the trees.

About 20 people were at the meeting to protest removal of the trees and about half voiced their opposition.

But when David Rogerson of Gulf Drive suggested Webb had changed the date of the meeting in order to get a 50-50 chance of a new commissioner siding with him, resident Mike Coleman reacted.

“We just went through a period when we couldn’t rationally discuss issues and people attacked people publicly. This mayor and commission have done a great job of bringing us back together. It’s totally inappropriate to be judging motives and intent,” Coleman said.

Miller defended his plan, saying the Australian pines create a dead zone under the limbs that kills the habitat of the gopher tortoise.

“There’s nothing left for them to eat,” he said.

Miller added that keeping the mother-in-law tongue plants in the park also was a danger.

“They will completely consume native vegetation,” he said.

He predicted all of Gulf Park would be a dead zone within a few years if the trees and mother-in-law tongue were left untouched.

Magill was upset that native buttonwood trees had been accidentally removed from the park by a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office bulldozer looking for evidence in an ongoing homicide case.

Miller said the MCSO had permission from the DEP and had pledged to return the park to its previous condition.

Commissioner John Quam said that in the future, no one should be allowed to work in the park unsupervised or without permission of the public works director.

Quam’s motion to halt plans to remove the trees passed 4-1. Webb made the opposition vote.

After the vote, SueLynn said the city must address the mother-in-law tongue plants.

McKay said he would look for information on methods to remove that species and report back to the commission.

In other business, the commission:

• Continued the public hearing on an amendment to the site plan for 501, 503, 505 and 507 Pine Avenue to 6 p.m. Dec. 15 to allow city attorney Jim Dye to determine opinions for commissioners.

• Approved that portion of the site-plan amendment that requested installation of voltaic panels to lower electrical use.

• Unanimously approved a firearms ordinance that grants the state control over firearms regulation in the city.

• Approved a request by Mayor Mike Selby for $20,000 in a matching grant to the Southwest Florida Water Management District to begin drainage improvements on certain streets.

• Asked Dye to review changes to the cell tower ordinance presented by consultant Rusty Monroe, who wrote the Bradenton Beach cell tower ordinance, and also review Monroe’s template for a future cell tower ordinance.

• Agreed to send out a request for proposals to other waste and trash hauling companies, while at the same time negotiating with Waste Management Inc. on a new contract. The current WMI contract expires in March 2012.

• Named Maddy Iseman, Fran Barford and Margaret Jenkins to the citizen of the year committee.

• Scheduled the annual volunteer Christmas party for 5:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at city hall.

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