Easements a concern during wildfire season

Article Courtesy of The St. Augustine Record

By Jared Keever

Published April 18, 2017


With Gov. Rick Scott having already declared a state of emergency in response to the thousands of acres burning across the state, and local officials warning that St. Johns County, too, could be in store for a busy wildfire season, Florida Forest Service Senior Forester Greg Dunn, says there is danger lurking in the many conservation easements threaded through the county’s crowded neighborhoods that many of the local homeowners associations don’t know how to deal with.

“The HOAs are blindsided when they take over,” Dunn said Thursday morning as he pulled away from his office, headed for a drive through a couple of neighborhoods that have had problems before.

Conservation easements are the green spaces left when land is cleared for a new development.

They are meant to “off-set a permitted project’s adverse impacts to wetlands and other surface waters by preserving, and thus protecting, in perpetuity other wetland and/or upland areas,” according to the website maintained by the St. Johns River Water Management District, the agency that manages the easements.

And there are a lot of them.

While hard numbers were not readily available on the Good Friday holiday, District spokesman Ed Garland said in an email that the easements number in the “hundreds” in St. Johns County, with 6,700 acres set aside in Nocatee alone. Some of that Nocatee acreage is in Duval County but the “majority” is south of the county line, he said.

Greg Dunn, Senior Forester for St. Johns County, walks through an area of woods in northern St. Johns County on Thursday where a prescribed burn was set to remove vegetation.


Dunn said that, if not properly managed, the easements can present a number of problems.

In many of the neighborhoods, he said, they butt up to the backs and sides of homes, putting them in jeopardy should there ever be a fire.

In other areas, the neighborhoods have been built up, above the natural grade, making it difficult for firefighters to get equipment into them from street level.

The now, low-lying areas also hold water, that, along with the thick underbrush, stresses the old pine trees, making them susceptible to the southern pine beetles that killed a lot of trees last year, which can also present a fire problem.

It was fire that Dunn talked most about on Thursday as he toured some of the areas of concern.

He said he wanted to let people know they do have ways to protect their homes, and that having a conservation easement near them doesn’t mean that they have to leave the land completely alone. But there is a process they have to follow to do it legally.

“Most don’t know what’s going on in [the easement] until we’ve had a wildfire and I go in there and talk to them,” he said, pointing out, as he often does, that fires will happen in Florida, but management techniques can mitigate how hazardous those fires will be.

One of the places that has had problems is The Colony at Greenbriar where fires threatened neighborhood homes back in 2011.

That was the year that firefighters, unable to get into the easement to battle the flames, had to shoot water over the houses to protect them.

“That’s not something I want to have to do too many times,” Dunn said. “We are fortunate that it did work.”

That year also highlighted another concern he has with the easements — once the homes are up, and sidewalks put in, there is no access to them.

The Forest Service fights wildfires with bulldozers and other heavy equipment that destroy sidewalks, yards and landscaping and are often too big to even get between the homes in the denser neighborhoods.

And in the communities where the streets are built as high as 6 to 8 feet above grade, getting the equipment in with a fire raging nearby is often too risky, to say nothing of the danger of getting stuck in the wet conditions.

That’s why, Dunn said, he is focusing on prevention.

The Forest Service recommends a 30-foot “buffer” between a wildfire fuel source and a home.

In The Colony at Greenbriar, he pointed out a few homes where the easements, thick with palmettos and other fuel, butted right up to a roughly 10-foot side-yard.

“If you had a lightning strike, before the fire department got here, there probably would be damage on that house,” he said, pointing to one.

In those areas, Dunn would like to see a 20-foot line in the easement to reduce the fuel load at the edge, and give the homes the 30-foot buffer they need. That can be done with prescribed burning or with equipment.

“We can leave the trees, we just have to take some of the vegetation out,” he said.

At the back of The Colony, Dunn pointed out a piece of private, undeveloped land where the owner had thinned out such a buffer for the adjacent homeowners. The brush was gone, down mostly to the soil, but the trees remained.

“Now if a fire came it’s just going to hit that and die down,” he said.

Getting that done at other easements is possible, and through the Forest Service’s wildfire mitigation program it can be done free of charge, after which the HOA would have to pay to maintain the buffer.

Dunn said there are a lot of misconceptions about what having the easements mean. Some residents don’t want the vegetation touched, some are in support of getting the help but don’t know how to start process, and others don’t even know they have options.

On his way out of The Colony on Thursday, Melissa Muley, a homeowner with an easement 10 feet from her house, flagged him down. She said she knew that her neighborhood and the Forest Service had been working with the Water Management District and the county to get the work done but progress seemed to have stalled.

Muley said she lived there in 2011 when the fires threatened her neighbors’ homes, and lived in the area during the 1998 fire season that Dunn said is among the worst he remembers.

Some of her neighbors, who weren’t here in those years, she said, don’t understand the risks involved, and worry that the thinning would be unsightly. She said, she knows that won’t be the case.

“Yes, we want to save the trees, but you’ve got to get the underbrush out,” she said.

Dunn gave her some business cards to get to her HOA president and assured her they would be in touch.

Interactions like that is why Dunn said he wants people to know he is willing to help. He not only wants to clear up the misconceptions that some have, but also, hopefully, streamline the process so the work can get done.

“It’s not the cost, it’s getting all the agencies together to actually do it,” he said.

A St. Johns County representative Dunn recommended as a contact did not immediately return a message left Thursday afternoon and county offices were closed Friday for the holiday.

Dunn said the St. Johns River Water Management District has taken steps toward streamling recently by putting together a three-page application that can get the process started, and he praised those efforts.

Ultimately, Dunn said, he would like to see all the agencies sit down together in the planning stages of a new development to talk about, not only fire mitigation efforts, but conservation concerns in general, before the roads go in and the houses go up.

For now, though, he said he is going to continue getting the word out and helping where he can.