Ocoee community's dilemma: Cut down oaks that uproot sidewalks?

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Stephen Hudak

Published October 11, 2013


Westyn Bay, like other developments, loves trees but worries about liability of jagged sidewalks. 


When Lucy Martinelli heard that her homeowners association was considering a plan to cut down more than 400 live oaks in her gated neighborhood, she felt heartsick.


"I know what trees mean to property values," said Martinelli, a real-estate agent and a resident of Westyn Bay near Ocoee High School.


Many of the 455 oaks, planted about eight years ago in the strips of grass between the street and sidewalk, could face the ax because they literally are a growing concern for Westyn Bay, where sidewalks have been pushed up by tree roots, posing a hazard for pedestrians and a legal liability for the homeowners association. Like many other developments in Central Florida, Westyn Bay is struggling to smooth out problems resulting from the conflict between trees and sidewalks two of the amenities most desired by homebuyers.

Greg Keethler, president of the Westyn Bay HOA, said cutting down trees was only one option the board provided homeowners. The board also proposed having individual homeowners take responsibility for repairing their sidewalks if they wanted to keep their trees.

"We have to do something," said Keethler, 

Oak trees line the area between the sidewalks and the street in the Westyn Bay community as seen on Palio Ct. in Ocoee. The Ocoee homeowners association plans to cut down the more than 450 oak trees in its gated community, claiming they could create dangerous hazards for pedestrians.

whose association was recently hit with a medical claim from a woman who tripped on an uneven walk, fell and injured her hip. He told residents in an email that the HOA has spent more than $5,000 in recent weeks repairing "tree-caused sidewalk damage." He found seven more sidewalk sections in need of repair during a walk Tuesday.

As subdivisions proliferated, many city codes in Central Florida required developers to plant a tree in front of every lot.

"Everybody was imagining a beautiful canopied, landscaped street when all of these street trees were planted almost a decade ago," said James Gustino, a Winter Garden attorney who represents Westyn Bay's HOA and homeowners groups in two dozen other communities.

But those codes and their well-meaning authors apparently did not fully anticipate what trouble hardy tree roots could wreak on sidewalks. The sidewalks can become a costly maintenance problem for homeowner associations, which have been sued for trip-and-fall injuries, Gustino said.

"It becomes a more and more expensive problem over time," he said.

Sidewalk repairs, which often include grinding down raised concrete, may require pruning of roots, which can damage the trees.

In Wesmere, a gated community of 565 homes in west Orange County, residents are discussing similar problems with curbside oak trees that are lifting sidewalks as well as the wall around the development, said Angel Alfonso, the community's manager.

"It's a dilemma, and it will take a lot of discussing to resolve," Alfonso said. "It's a nice addition to a community to have beautiful oak trees. Everybody wants them. ... But the way the sidewalks lift up can be very dangerous to pedestrians, and [if not repaired], you open yourself to liability."

He said cutting down trees is a difficult choice because some people become emotionally attached to trees they have watched grow.

Andy Kittsley, an urban forester for Orlando's parks division and a consulting arborist for Westyn Bay's HOA, said neighborhoods with oaks planted in narrow strips next to the street can expect to deal with sidewalk damage unless roots are redirected by "root barriers" or other schemes.

"Healthy roots are powerful forces," he said. "You plant a tree close to a sidewalk, the sidewalk's going to get moved. ... [Roots] will push up or into anything they come in contact with." A healthy root of a big oak can exert 500 pounds of force in 1 square inch.

In Westyn Bay, about 100 homeowners came to a meeting Monday night to hear Kittsley and other tree experts and to ask questions of Keethler and others on the volunteer HOA board.

"We have 455 trees that we have to do something about," Keethler said in a telephone interview Tuesday. He denied that the HOA intended to chop down all street trees and pointed out that Westyn Bay has more than 3,600 trees. He said that mass removal of the street trees is the cheapest option for the HOA. Other options, including moving the trees, are much more costly.

"It's not hard to get to $1,000 per tree," said Keethler, who expressed concern about the financial burden of repairs and lawsuits. He said the association may form a committee to study options and costs.

"We recognized we're on the leading edge of this problem, and we're trying to find a way to grapple with it now while we can rather than waiting 10 or 12 years down the road like some other communities," he said. "Everything I see and have read says it's a problem that's inevitable."