Gateway Sun

Well that was easy.

After weeks of pressure, petitions, crowded meetings, passionate pleas, accusations and the bright lights from the cameras of the local news media – the Board of Supervisors of the Gateway Services Community Development District made it clear yesterday that the time for delays and negotiating was over, and the time for honoring the commitment to Lee County was now.

Road turnover will proceed as planned, and to the disappointment of hundreds of Gateway residents the Royal Palm trees will not be remaining in the median.

Gateway Boulevard will be shut down near the Stoneybrook community for one week in the month of June 2015 while 38 of the 47 palm trees are cut down or relocated. And that’s the only part of this situation still up for debate: whether the 38 trees will find new homes in Gateway or they’ll simply be chopped down and removed. The 9 palm trees closest to SR-82 will remain.

At the April 16, 2015 meeting of the GSCDD Board of Supevisors, Chairman William Guy made his strongest comments on this subject to date.

Guy began his remarks by thanking the residents of Gateway for being so invested in the issue of the fate of the Royal Palm trees. He then made a series of points on the topic.

“A contract for $1.3 million has been signed for work on the roads to bring them into compliance so that Lee County will accept them. This work is about to begin and there’s very little room for slippage. We don’t want the contractor suing us for some kind of damages because we’ve held up his work,” said Guy.

Guy then pointed out that according to Supervisor Rod Senior it would cost more money to relocate the trees than to just cut them down. (Senior has obtained figures that it costs $550 to cut the trees down or $1200 to move them). The Chairman also noted that at this point no site for relocation has even been determined yet – nor has it been agreed who would pay the cost difference.

Guy was also concerned with the issue of road closure, stating: “I would like to beg to differ with anybody who thinks that you can cut down trees and haul them away as opposed to digging them out and relocating them some place in the same amount of time. In my judgment, Gateway Boulevard is going to be shut down or largely controlled for a lot longer if we’re trying to dig these trees out (and move them).”

Then Guy cast doubt over how many trees would even survive being relocated.

“Some of these root balls have gone under the curb and under the street and digging them out so that they have a 90% survivability rate is contrary with what I have read on a lot of occasions. If we have a 50% survivability rate that’s a lot closer to what I read is probable with mature trees of this age and size,” said Guy.

The final main point Guy made was about liability if there’s an accident, saying “our insurance company has notified us that our liability coverage does not cover those trees as long as they do not meet Lee County standards … Every day that goes by there’s a possibility of an accident happening for which we are going to possibly be liable with no insurance coverage.”

Guy ended his remarks by saying he’s thought a great deal about this issue and that he knows some people will not be happy, but it’s simply time to proceed as originally planned and get the trees out of the median.

The Chairman was actually the last of the Supervisors to speak on the subject at yesterday’s meeting.

Before any of the Supervisors spoke, about 10 residents took turns addressing the board with most of them being in favor of keeping the Royal Palms exactly where they are. One notable exception was Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass who addressed the board both as a County Commissioner and a resident of Gateway and he explained that the experts at the Lee County Department of Transportation (who have Masters degrees in Civil Engineering) all agree that the palm trees need to be removed for safety reasons.

Once the residents’ turn was over, the Supervisors began.

Vice-Chairman Margaret Fineberg was offered the opportunity to speak first but she requested that Senior go before her because he had a Powerpoint presentation laying out his case for relocating the trees that she’d like to see.

Senior went ahead with his presentation which laid out various options for the trees, with his preference being strongly in favor of relocating them. Based on feedback from tree experts Senior believes that only “a few” of the trees would die in the relocation process.

Like Guy, Senior was also perfectly clear that it was time to move on.

“I don’t think it’s time to re-litigate this whole road turnover discussion. It’s done. The deal was done a long time ago in the full knowledge those palms were coming out,” said Senior.

And as for people who are worried about how it would look if there was an accident once the trees were gone?

“We’d have a lot more egg on our face if a school bus ran into a palm tree,” Senior said.

Senior also made the point about the cost to maintain the roads, noting that the three roads involved in the turnover (Gateway Boulevard, Griffin Drive, Commerce Lakes Drive West) will cost $19 million over the next 30 years and Senior said it makes no sense for Gateway to pay that money.

“They’re public roads that we don’t control, so we’re better off not owning them. And I wouldn’t want a discussion about 38 Royal Palms to stop (the turning over ownership of the roads to Lee County) from happening. And that’s the big picture.”

Fineberg then took her turn, saying, “I absolutely was not in favor of them clear-cutting those palm trees, and that was the whole issue. I just kept thinking about them coming and sawing those palm trees down at grass level and it just seemed like a ridiculous idea.”

The Vice-Chairman then applauded Senior’s work in exploring the relocation of the trees and pointed out that when you come in Gateway Boulevard from Daniels there’s a nice landscaping scenery to greet you, whereas when coming from SR-82 essentially all that’s there are the Royal Palms.

Supervisor Pam Gill noted that the issue of the palm trees and the road turnover needed to be seperate, and that she sided with Senior in that the trees should be saved and relocated rather than cut down.

After Gill spoke, Guy made the comments that we outlined earlier in this article.

Supervisor Gary Neubauer was not present at the meeting so he obviously did not offer comment.

Partly due to Neubauer’s absence, the Supervisors delayed making any final determinations about whether to move or cut the trees but will likely have to decide by the next GSCDD board meeting.

The next board meeting is scheduled for May 14, 2015.

So it can safely be said that it’s official: the 38 Royal Palm trees will not remain in the median.

The Supervisors will decide whether to move or cut down the trees, which is set to happen in June 2015.

It seems that if a suitable plan to relocate the trees can be found then that’s what will happen.

About Jeff Kuntz

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Editor of the Gateway Sun and owner of restaurant delivery service Florida Food Runner.

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