Oak and mahogany trees the root of hazardous sidewalks and rancorous neighborhood battles

Article Courtesy of  The Palm Beach Post

By Mike Diamond    

Published October 13, 2020


Twenty-eight years ago, it seemed like a good idea for Palm Beach County planners to require developers to install oak or mahogany trees between sidewalks and streets.

They were expected to become beautiful overhead canopies providing shade from the South Florida heat, mitigate climate change by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, absorb rain through their leaves and provide a habitat for birds. They have accomplished all that.

But their extensive root systems have also uplifted sidewalks and curbs, an impact that seems to occur 10 to 15 years after they are planted. The large seeds often create a hazard when they fall to the ground.

Many communities west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach are either incurring annual repair bills of as much as $50,000 or they are spending as much as $400,000 to remove the trees. Valencia Palms recently removed 800 trees, Buena Vida more than 1,000, Valencia Reserve nearly 400 and Canyon Lakes more than 300.


Sometimes the pushback is strong; so much so in Tivoli Lakes that residents created a save-our-trees committee and urged residents last November to block a contractor from removing 272 mahogany trees by parking cars in front of them. The HOA pushed off the removal of the trees after the TREE committee threatened a lawsuit.

The HOA and the committee turned to a mediator for help. But after an impasse, the HOA opted to move ahead with plans to remove the trees. It awarded a $245,000 contract on Oct. 6 to Lake Worth-based Power Group Total Care. The mahogany trees will be replaced with 336 foxtail palms. More than 100 mahogany trees were knocked down by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The four-to-six-week project is expected to begin by the end of the month. If the company is prevented from doing the work, HOA President Bob Eisenberg told The Post that the Sheriff will be called.

Slip-and-fall lawsuits are happening

Eisenberg acknowledges that the canopy associated with the foxtail palms will be smaller than the current mahogany trees but maintains the bigger issue is the safety of residents. The HOA is already defending three-slip-and-fall lawsuits related to the uplifted sidewalks.

The tree committee wants a referendum because the expenditure is well in excess of the $50,000 threshold. But Eisenberg says a vote is not necessary, according to HOA lawyers, because the expenditure involves maintenance.

“This is a minority of residents fighting us,” said Eisenberg. “More than half of the homeowners are on record supporting the removal of the trees.”

Barry Silver, a lawyer representing the residents, called on the HOA to hold an election if it is so certain that a majority of homeowners supports the HOA. Silver said the HOA held an election in the past to replace trees in the median. This involves a much bigger expense, he noted.

“We have extended an olive branch or a mahogany tree branch,” he noted, “but if the HOA proceeds to cut the trees, we are weighing all of our options that include the filing of a lawsuit to hold board members individually liable for their actions.”

Arny Pickholtz, a TREE committee spokesman, said more than 100 residents are members. The committee hired a certified landscape architect who prepared a report that would result in the preservation of many of the canopy trees but he says the HOA won’t consider it. Eisenberg said the HOA has never received a copy of the report.

So what is the next step at Tivoli Lakes?

“All options are on the table,” said Pickholtz.

The angst caused by the street tree issue is being felt throughout Palm Beach County.

Some communities pay for damage done to the driveways of homeowners; others do not.

Valencia Falls stopped paying for driveway repairs as of Dec. 31, 2018. Homeowner Alan Joseph sued the HOA in small claims court after he had to spend $600 last year to repair his driveway. A judge ruled against him.

At Terracina in West Palm Beach, Joan Bonello says it is “a nightmare” trying to retrieve her mail. She already suffered a back injury after she tripped over her raised sidewalk. The HOA says it is her responsibility to make the repairs.

Street trees too close for comfort

Palm Beach County planners now recognize they made a mistake when they required developers to plant street trees so close to curbs and sidewalks. Since August 2017, developers have not been allowed to plant trees within 10 feet of a curb, sidewalk, pavement or underground utility.

But that does not help the scores of developments currently struggling to cope with problems caused by the street trees.

Four Seasons HOA President Arthur Goldzweig argues that the county should be assisting the HOAs because the county policy caused the problem in the first place.

“We are stuck with the costs of the county's lack of care. The county should reimburse us,” Goldzweig said.

Like other communities, Four Seasons has seen a significant increase in insurance costs because of trip-and-fall claims. The community continues to pay for repairs to driveways on homeowner property. The annual repair bill: $30,000.

At Coral Lakes, west of Boynton Beach, Greg Reardigan, the maintenance supervisor, says the roots of roughly 100 street trees a year are trimmed and the roots, at times, have caused damage to water pipes.

John Harris, president of Earth Advisors, is a certified arborist. A number of communities have hired his firm to determine what to do with the street trees.

“The problem is that these builders put the wrong trees in the wrong place,” he told The Post. “They are too close to sidewalks and curbs. You can put in root barriers but that is only a temporary solution. Within five years, the roots will find a way to go around them.”

Harris has recommended to a number of communities that the trees be removed.

Michael Schiffman, president of the HOA at Valenica Reserve, said developments west of the Turnpike created a Landscape Council three years ago. At the first meeting, representatives of the 17 communities were asked what is the number one landscaping issue.

The nearly unanimous response was “street trees,” Schiffman said.

Homeowners began moving into Valencia Cove on Lyons Road six years ago. Within two years of assuming control of the community, the HOA removed all of the oak trees planted on the strip of land between its curbs and sidewalks.

“We knew what everyone else was experiencing,” said Don Resnick, a current HOA board member who was president at the time the trees were removed. “We did not want to wait until the damage started.”