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Imperial River coconut palms cleared to make way for new sea wall

Wednesday, July 16, 2003


It's hard to say how long the row of five coconut palm trees had been clinging to the southern banks of the Imperial River just west of the Old 41 Road bridge.

Maybe 50 years? Longer?

They were certainly old enough to qualify as historic, the way John Whittle figures. He owned the 3-acre riverfront property for about 15 years, until he sold it — and the coconut palms that rested on it — to the city of Bonita Springs in 2001.

A worker for Naples Dock and Marine clears one of several palm tree stumps cut down earlier on city-owned property along the Imperial River at Riverside Park to make way for a new sea wall. The previous owner of the land, John Whittle, is outraged over the cutting down of the trees, which Bonita Springs city officials say were poking through the old sea wall, necessitating their removal. Michel Fortier/Staff

Tuesday, city-hired contractors cut down the five spindly palms along with two cabbage palms and two pine trees that also lined the riverbank. Their intent: to make way for a new $135,000 seawall on the northern tip of Riverside Park.

City officials said the tree roots were poking through the old seawall, and the trees were too old to be relocated. To Whittle, the spindly palms deserved a better ending.

"These were five beautiful coconut palms," Whittle said as he sat in a lawn chair Tuesday afternoon in the shade of a ficus tree behind the Laundromat he still owns on Old 41. From his spot, he could watch the workers toil a few hundred feet away on the newly cleared riverbank.

"Every old picture we have, (the coconut palms) were in there, so they had to have some age to them. If I had known they were going to make such a mess, I wouldn't have sold the place."

And he had other takers at the time who were offering nearly twice as much money for the property, which then housed a thriving mobile home park called Imperial River Court.

Whittle said he was offered as much as $1.7 million from an investor who wanted to stack the prime property with condos and offices. City fathers promised considerably less — $1 million, to be exact — but Whittle accepted the deal. He was fond of their plan to turn his land into a park that all could enjoy.

So far, city officials have done a lot of work on the property to accomplish that vision. Whittle didn't mind many of the changes. Such as when the city relocated the mobile home park's residents and took out the old residences. Or when the city laid new sod.

But he feels that the city has neglected the old two-story hotel on the site. And stripping out the coconut palms, which seemed to give the river its character, was even worse.

"I consider myself a tree-lover," said Whittle, 76.

He isn't alone.

Cullum Hasty, a longtime local environmentalist and city planning board member, said the situation proves that the city needs to have tougher ordinances governing the removal of trees, especially those on public lands.

"If you have some type of foliage that can be seen by the public and if it's a visual amenity to the city like these palm trees were, then it at least should be considered" to save them from destruction, Hasty said. "They shouldn't have been taken down with no thought."

The seawall contractor and city officials say they pained over the decision to remove the trees.

"It was right in the way of the construction," said Assistant City Manager Barbara Barnes-Buchanan. "Some of the roots had destroyed portions of the (old) seawall."

Shawn Maher, general manager of Naples Dock and Marine Services, said his company checked with several landscapers to see if they would be interested in using the trees. But, he said, he was told the trees were too big, too old and were too poor of quality to warrant the expense to move them.

The new seawall replaces a 20-year-old wooden structure that was starting to fail, officials say. The concrete wall will be 8 inches thick and include about 60 reef balls along the edge of the water to create a wildlife habitat. Maher said the project should be done around the end of August.

Councilman David Piper owns Everglades Wonder Gardens, a popular tourist attraction, on the opposite side of the river from Riverside Park. He said he was born in 1963 in Bonita Springs and can't remember a time when the coconut palms weren't on the site.

"Any time that you have fully developed trees along the riverbank's edge, that's pretty picturesque," Piper said. "So, I'm sad to see them go."

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Electronic forum provides place for local political debate
Imperial River coconut palms cleared to make way for new sea wall
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