BRADENTON BEACH – Controversy over Australian pine trees in the Coquina Beach parking lot may slow down or stop the second phase of a $6 million drainage project, county tourism officials learned on Monday.
The county removed 103 of the non-native pines and replaced them with native species in phase one at the southern end of the parking area, scheduled to be completed by February or March, Mike Sturm, project manager at the Manatee County Public Works Department, told Manatee County Tourist Development Council (TDC) members.
Another 126 pines will need to be removed at the northern end in phase two, he said.
Spirited discussions at city and county meetings about removing the first batch of trees caused the project to fall three to four months behind, he said, adding that the city of Bradenton Beach required the county to replace the 103 pines with 103 native, salt-tolerant trees, mostly black olive, gumbo limbo and green buttonwood. The county exceeded the city’s height requirements, choosing trees 8-12 feet high, Sturm said.
TDC Chair and Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore was not appeased by the effort, citing the Australian pines’ shade and aesthetic appeal.
The nearly-completed portion of the southern parking lot “looks like Siesta Beach or one of the other sterile beaches we have south of us… I wanted to save some of the character of Anna Maria Island,” said Whitmore, who voted against the project as a county commissioner. “People come to us because we aren’t a sterile beach like you see in other places in Florida. If you go for phase two, I’m really going to fight it hard,” she said.
In phase two, which Manatee County commissioners have not yet approved, the county public works staff can try to mitigate the impact to the pines by changing the pavement design to save some of them, Sturm said.
But Australian pine opponents, like Island restaurateur and TDC member Ed Chiles, say the trees are unstable in high winds due to shallow root systems and produce acidity that discourages the growth of native plants.
Pines lining Gulf Drive could topple into the roadway, which is a hurricane evacuation route, Chiles said, complimenting the county on removing the pines and on the drainage project’s progress, saying it “provides access to our crown jewel, the beaches.”
The county worked with an expert who determined that 90% of the time, the Coquina Beach parking lot gets an inch of rain or less, he said, so the system is designed to keep the lot dry 90% percent of the time. During a heavy storm, it may take a day or so to clear, he said, but any water coming off Gulf Drive will be routed around the parking area.
The system also should help reduce harmful algal blooms, Chiles said; the project incorporates carbon filters under pervious parking surfaces to help filter out nutrients from stormwater runoff, which will drain into the Intracoastal Waterway.
Pervious concrete was used at Riverwalk and Lecom Field, TDC member and Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said.
“It’s worked very well, we’re very pleased with that,” he said, predicting that the improved beach parking lot will attract more visitors and locals when it is finished in January.
But the Australian pines made the beach “look like the Island,” he said.
“I think Carol’s right,” he said. “You get a new puppy and everybody forgets about the old dog who has served you so well.”
“I lost this one,” Whitmore said. “As a TDC member for a long time now, I just don’t want the character to be inching away… I’m just trying to preserve a little bit of the character and that to me was a big thing. But they’re gone.”