The on-again, off-again war between residents trying to defend the island’s oak canopies and the professional tree-cutters trying to protect power lines took another surprising turn last week when Florida Power & Light (FPL) apologized for a botched tree-trimming job and offered to uproot and replace trees that may have been damaged beyond repair.
Problem: The trees that might have to be replaced were 40-year-old stately live oak trees and FPL wants to give the residents a credit on their bills to enable them to replace their oaks with trees like magnolias.
Ironically, Ground Zero of the latest battle was a condominium complex on North A1A just south of the Indian River Shores town hall named Robles del Mar, which is Spanish for Sea Oaks.
There, the FPL proposal and peace offering was a total non-starter. “I explained to them that our name is Robles del Mar (and what the Spanish words mean) and that we would like to stick to the magnificent oaks,” said Mary Power, the active president of the Robles del Mar Home Owners’ Association (HOA). “We want to maintain the name and the character of our grounds.”
This latest round of the long-running battle between tree huggers and tree cutters started a couple of weeks ago when an FPL contractor started trimming back trees to clear foliage deemed too close to power lines all along North A1A from the Indian River Shores town line at the 7-Eleven convenience store to the Wabasso Bridge.
The branch trimming generally takes place ahead of the annual hurricane season as a routine preventive measure. Most power outages after storms are caused by trees and branches falling on power lines.
At Robles this year, branch-cutting was pretty aggressive. Power, in the name of the Robles del Mar HOA, took up the issue with FPL, sending along pictures of the damaged trees and vowing to enlist the help of the state’s environmental protection authorities, the relevant municipal planning and zoning boards and other organizations that exist to protect trees.
“They were stately trees which can live for 400 years but now there is very little left of them,” Power wrote. “You are certainly the talk of the town … how you can come along and do so much damage … and how ridiculous the whole area looks now. How would you feel if such damage occurred on the frontage of your property?”
In response to Power’s letter, FPL sent someone out to look at the damaged trees up and down A1A. “They agreed that the trees have been badly pruned and do not meet their own guidelines,” Power told the Robes del Mar condo owners in a group email.
“I was pretty upset myself when I saw it,” said an FPL supervisor who went back out to the site last week, adding that the radical trimming was not done in accordance with national standards to protect the health of the trees.
FPL returned to the site with a new, better-trained contractor to try and repair the damage done to the trees. That unfortunately involved more cutting, but this time the job was done in accordance with national standards in such a way that the trees have a chance to heal themselves and re-grow branches and leaves.
One tree might be too far gone to be repaired, but crews decided to leave it alone because it is part of the iconic entrance to the complex.
Conflicts between utility workers and tree-loving residents about over-aggressive trimming seem to have increased since the sale of Vero Electric to FPL in 2019, which brought residents lower electric rates.
“Their policy was to be more reactive,” the FPL supervisor said, referring to Vero Electric, meaning that the old municipal utility cut back branches and trees basically only when they were threatening to engulf power lines and presented an active risk. “We are proactive,” he said, adding that FPL starts cutting away foliage before it can develop into a problem for power lines.
He said FPL schedules major tree maintenance for every three years, but does a visual survey every year to see if more action is needed. The company has also advised residents that it is using drones to take aerial photographs to help identify trouble spots where abundant foliage threatens the safety of power lines.
As a result of conflicts with local residents, FPL has updated its contact list and has promised to stay in touch with residents and HOA leaders, where applicable, to advise them of tree-trimming schedules. “We’ll give you a call next time we’re coming out to give you a chance to state your concerns about protecting your trees to our certified arborist.
We want to work with you and treat your house like it was our house,” the supervisor said.
The 72-unit Robles del Mar condominium complex was built 44 years ago. The stately live oak trees, which normally grow about 3 feet per year, were planted around the same time or shortly after construction was finished.
In the future, Power said, the HOA may plant some new oak trees farther back from the power lines to protect them from over-aggressive pruning by utility workers.