By Reda Wigle
A century-old tropical almond tree, rooted on Louisa Street in Old Town, has been approved for removal via a 4-2 vote by the City of Key West Tree Commission. The decision and the justifications for it have drawn criticism from citizens and commissioners alike. A representative at the June 11 hearing argued that in addition to being messy, the tree posed a danger to pedestrians, who could slip and fatally injure themselves on the fallen leaves. Urban Forestry Manager Karen DeMaria dismissed the comments.
“He was laughing when he said that. That was not an appropriate statement for him to make, but it was not what most of the Tree Commissioners used as their basis for approving removal of the tree,” said DeMaria. They noticed a decay area on one of the main trunks. She noted that the approval to remove the tree was made by the Tree Commissioners in a democratic process.
For botanist and tree commissioner Jeff Stotts, the fate of the Louisa Street almond tree is no laughing matter. Stotts, a self-described disciple of “the gospel of the Lorax,” was one of the dissenting votes.
“It rocked me. This tree has survived every major hurricane of the 20th and 21st centuries, but it didn’t survive the Tree Commission,” said Stotts. The Tree Commission was established by the city of Key West in to 1972 to preserve and promote the growth of the city’s canopy. Stotts fears the original objective has been compromised. “Old Town is losing its identity. My responsibility is tree protection. I plant trees and take care of them as opposed to guys in the commercial trade whose job it is to take them out,” he said.
Stotts’ indignation is shared by former tree commissioner Karen O’Leary, who runs the popular Facebook page Save A Tree Key West. The page, which has followed the Louisa street almond tree closely, operates as a forum for local opinion and a platform for preservation advocates. In response to the comments about the messiness of the almond tree, O’Leary posted a call on the Save A Tree page, urging concerned citizens who want to see the tree spared to commit themselves to its maintenance.
“Within the first two hours, I had 30 people say ‘you tell us when and where and we’ll bring our rakes,” said O’Leary. A local activist, O’Leary takes issue with the conflicting interest of arborists who stand to profit from recommending tree removal to the commission. “I have a hard time believing arborists when they say a tree is rotten, or it’s a bad tree, when these people make their living removing trees,” said O’Leary.
Homeowner Leo Walters, who filed the application for the removal of the tropical almond tree, was not present at the hearing. Walters was surprised to hear the comments about messiness and the-slip-and-fall risk of the leaves. “I don’t know where that came from, that was never my concern. We’ve lived here seven years and haven’t slipped on a leaf yet,” he said. Walters maintains that structural soundness is at the root of his unease. “Our motivation is simply safety. We had Irma not long ago, and I keep seeing the vision of Shel Silverstein’s old home and the tree that fell on it,” said Walters.
Walters was advised by representative Sean Creedon of Big Pine-based arboreal service Treeman, that cutting back the tropical almond would reduce the tree to a stump, leaving it more vulnerable to future decay.
Walters is not opposed to a solution beyond removal but is skeptical about the likelihood of finding one. “It’s a beautiful tree and we wouldn’t do this lightly. If there’s some way someone can prove to me this tree isn’t going to come down with the next hurricane, I would be ok, but I don’t think that is going to happen,” said Walters. He’s planted several indigenous species of trees on his property since purchasing it in 2012. “The protection of my family and my property and my neighbors will define the final decision,” said Walters. As a condition of removal, homeowners like him are required to replant an approved tree to ensure the arboreal integrity of the Key West canopy. A removal date for the tropical almond tree has not been scheduled.