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Can Beachland’s oak hammock be saved?

(Week of May 12, 2011)

The bobcats, raccoons and rabbits may not have noticed the red tape around tree trunks at Beachland Elementary. But the markers in an area of rare oak hammock continue to raise questions, as a group of neighbors and parents try to cut through the bureaucratic red tape to save the area.

The group also wants to resolve questions surrounding the fate of the surveyed and counted trees.

 The trees are a crucial part of the last pristine plot of oak hammock on the island, the group says, and their concern is that the school district’s five-year plan may threaten it.

The final plan for various proposed entrances and exits, school bus lanes and car pickup circles at Beachland is unknown until the plan is complete. Alternatives to the 2007 plan have not been made available to the public. 

The changes at Beachland are necessary for the school to meet Florida’s “concurrency requirements,” related to the numbers of students at the school.

 Last week, at a meeting at a home on nearby Date Palm Road, the group made clear its opposition to using sections of the school’s original oak hammock to ease traffic congestion and school overcrowding. The group plans to appear before the school board later this month.

 The Indian River School District’s five-year capital plan -- including changes at Beachland -- is still being developed, officials say.

But in 2007, a site plan was produced by the City of Vero Beach that includes more space at Beachland for school bus turn-arounds and roomier student pick-up. It also allows for a new wider entrance to the campus further down Indian River Drive off Beachland Boulevard.

The site plan also shows that the land in the northeast and west sections of the hammock are intended for a new entrance and roads in and out to the west, plus a new exit road to the northeast.

The 2007 design for the latest expansion of the school has stirred strong feelings. The Date Palm group believes the plan is still the most likely one to be put in place. 

“Have you ever looked at Google Earth for the barrier island?” asks Dean Heran, a former teacher and business owner whose daughter attends Beachland. “The hammock at Beachland is the last piece of undisturbed coastal oak hammock here. It’s home to bobcats, owls, gopher tortoises, bats, and many other animals and plants.”

Heran says if cars are going in and out of a newly groomed area, the animals may flee. “There may still be trees there, but it won’t be the same habitat,” he says. “It will be managed space, but space that’s much more sterile.”

Heran and others think the solution to the school’s expansion needs can be found without involving the hammock. “There is already managed space on the south, southwest and southeast grounds,” he says.

He says they are not concerned with what the district wants to do with the classroom and cafeteria areas of the school. Those, too, are scheduled for expansion, but in the interior part of the campus.

“We see these changes would not affect the hammock,” agrees Colette Dooley, a scientist at Torrey Pines Institute. “That area is already developed and should be used.” 

“But do we really need to cut into our pristine hammock in two different areas for the sake of parking and a faster drop-off?” asks Heran.

Heran feels that despite talk of the importance of conservation, too little of it is being employed in addressing new plans for the campus. He says the students at Beachland stand to learn from the debate.

“They need to see us come up with a creative plan that will preserve that pristine forest and not choose to cut into it as the very first idea we have,” says Heran. “Our children are going to face many environment problems in the world they inherit from us. They are learning from us.” 

Another parent, Rob Bordonaro, believes portions of the south campus might be re-developed instead of using the untouched area. “It looks like there’s enough space on that south side for a three-lane highway.”

Others said the school hammock has been treated as a protected area in the past.

“When we moved here three years ago, the hammock was described by Realtors as a preserve,” says Diane McManigal, “something that was not to be disturbed.”

Meanwhile, a group of neighborhood students is doing some investigation of its own into the impact of the hammock.  They are working on a survey of wildlife observed on Date Palm Road, the road that runs just north of the school’s boundary.

The survey was designed by Beachland parent Greg O’Corry-Crowe, a biologist at Florida Atlantic University-Harbor Branch.  “It’s still a bit of real wildness there,” he says.

Current rules dictate the timing of property development must go along with student population growth. The idea is to ensure schools and their services are made available to the public in a timely manner.

Beachland has exceeded state “levels of service” for the past two years, according to the third-quarter facilities update posted on the district’s website. Temporary classrooms have been used to handle more students than the school’s 555-student capacity.

“We’re at 583 right now,” says Principal Carol Wilson. “We anticipate about that same number next year.”

 Susan Olson, director of facilities planning and construction at the school district, is aware of the reaction a design requiring new use of the hammock might bring. “We know people are very concerned about those trees,” she says.

Parents’ concern over the lush vegetation at the school is nothing new. Even removal of a small amount of underbrush can prompt phone calls.

But the location of the Beachland entry off Beachland Blvd. has long been a subject of safety concerns. 

Olson says the level of traffic coming over the Barber Bridge at just the point where parents and staff turn into the school is one concern.

In the last three years, data collected by the county and the City of Vero Beach indicate traffic levels on the bridge and Beachland Blvd. have declined by a third since a peak in 2007.

The recent reduction in vehicle numbers on the bridge has not affected plans being made by the school district.

Meanwhile, Olson has asked for recommendations on Beachland from a local source: Andreas Daehnick, director of horticulture and research at McKee Botanical Garden.

Daehnick has examined the areas in the lower northwest and northeast ends of the hammock being considered for changes.  He says he found routes meandered in order to accommodate the location of individual trees. Those routes may be used in the creation of the new paved entrance and exit areas. Considering individual trees was a key concern, he says.

“They are suggesting a path of the least destruction,” he says. “No significant trees are being affected.”

These considerations are not enough for Heran’s group. “What we want to see conserved is the habitat, not simply saving trees from being removed,” he says.

“A pristine hammock is an entire environment. Once an area is cleaned out like a park, it has been sterilized for many living things. We can’t get this hammock back once it’s been destroyed,” he says.

“I’ve taught at schools in different places and what we have at Beachland, a still undisturbed environment of more than five acres, is almost unheard of,” says Heran.

“What do we want to teach our children? That we destroyed this little treasure we have in our community so we could have easier line-ups for SUVs, a new entrance, and to save a few minutes in school pick-up? “