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Date of Issue: May 17, 2007

Pine time protestors

Stop taking our pines
An estimated 100 members of the Stop Taking Our Pines organization attended the May 10 Anna Maria City Commission meeting to protest the removal of five Australian pines from the city's Gulffront Park. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

When the Anna Maria City Commission voted three years ago to authorize removal of five of the 12 Australian pines trees in Gulffront Park, the decision generated all the public interest of a vote on buying more water cups for the drinking fountain.

How times have changed.

Since 2004, the grass-roots organization known as Stop Taking Our Pines has gained momentum on the Island and organizers now say they have more than 900 signatures on a petition demanding that governments stop removing Australian pines.

And about 100 STOP members attended the Anna Maria City Commission meeting May 10 to express their displeasure with the city's decision on Gulffront Park, an area of city-owned land seaward of the homes between Oak and Palm avenues.

STOP organizer John Molyneux said that his group's view is that while the city only wants to remove five pine trees this time, next year it will be five more, then five more the next year and so on. "This is only the beginning" of the elimination of all Australian pines on the Island, he contended.

Not true, responded City Commissioner Dale Woodland. Removal of more than the five trees at Gulffront Park "has never been planned." In fact, noted Woodland, the consultant's report from 2004 had recommended the city remove all the Australian pines from the park, and some people wanted them removed from Gulf Boulevard as well.

The city only made its decision after obtaining the study on how to manage the Gulffront Park environment, which was prepared by an environmental consulting group, he added. Removing five pines was a "responsible and fair compromise," Woodland said.

Molyneux, however, said it was "irresponsible" for the city to be cutting down Australian pines when they should be planting them. It's a "misuse" of taxpayer funds to remove those trees, he said. His organization wants the commission to "cease funding" removal of any pines.

He dismissed the idea that the pines should be removed because they are invasive and non-native, stating the trees are part of the beauty of the Island, absorb carbon, provide shade for beachgoers and protect a number of bird species that make nests in the branches.

Other STOP speakers suggested that a referendum might be necessary to halt further pine tree removal, while one speaker indicated the day would come when all the trees on the Island have been removed.

Commissioner Duke Miller was perplexed. It seems there is a "huge perception" that the commission is out to eradicate all the Australian pines in the city. This removal was discussed and approved three years ago, he noted.

Tim Eiseler, chairman of the environmental education and enhancement committee and a trained forester, said the five pines that will be removed are not used by anyone and are interfering with the growth of some sea oats. Removing the pines is a logical step to preserving the park.

Although the commission took no action to change its plan for removing the five pine trees in Gulffront Park, STOP members apparently don't plan to give up. Some have asked to meet with Mayor Fran Barford to discuss the referendum process to put the issue to a vote.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recommends that governments remove Australian pines on public property "where possible," and also prohibits the planting of any Australian pine trees. The DEP has labeled the trees "invasive, exotic and non-native."

Meanwhile, the removal of the five offending Australian pines is slated for this summer.

In other commission business, commissioners discussed the future of dredging the Lake LaVista inlet as opposed to extending the jettys as a means of keeping the channel free of silt for a longer period of time.

City engineer Tom Wilcox gave the commission four options, but said his recommendation is that the city pay a local firm for an extra "fillet" of silt removal. This would keep the channel open a bit longer until the city is ready for a major dredge operation that will cost between $100,000 and $125,000. The city currently has two dredging permits for Lake LaVista that expire in 2009 and 2010 respectively, unless the city can renew those permits.

Commissioners also discussed a stormwater utility fee similar to a proposal submitted by Woodland two years ago that he eventually withdrew because of the 20-year payback portion of the proposal.

The fee would pay for maintenance of stormwater improvements that are currently budgeted. Barford said she would take Woodland's spread sheets from the last proposal and bring more information back to the commission.

Woodland said he thinks a stormwater utility fee is a "great way" to pay for drain maintenance, but not an effective means to fund new construction of this type.