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New traffic plan for Beachland campus would cut 145 trees

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of December 13, 2012)

Neighbors of Beachland Elementary are fuming over the fine details in an Indian River School District plan to cut scores of trees on the school grounds – not just the two previously mentioned.

After nearly three years of battling the district to save the oak hammock – home to abundant wildlife – that abuts Beachland Elementary, island residents were assured the latest plan for building a new student drop-off/pick up location and a bus shelter would have a minimum impact on the trees.

A brief description of the agenda item for a Jan. 3 city planning and zoning department meeting mentions just two trees will be cut down. What it doesn’t mention is 145 trees are slated to be cut down around the entire school property.

Neighbors pledge to fight that plan in force at the city planning and zoning meeting.

“What can you believe anymore?” asked Greg Crowe, a biologist at Florida Atlantic University-Harbor Branch and parent of a Beachland student.

The school district, he said, has created problems for itself from the start.

A few years ago, residents were told the colorful markers around trees and survey stakes were nothing more than an attempt to catalogue what was in the lush hammock. The same residents later learned of a school plan to build a road through the oak hammock on the school’s north side so traffic from the more than 100 parents who ferry their children to and from school would no longer create the log-jam now experienced on Beachland Boulevard and Indian River Drive.

After huge public outcry, that traffic plan was scuttled but at a cost that initially appeared as a pick your battle scenario: Either the trees go or traffic will increase on quiet Central Beach streets, particularly Date Palm.

“It’s a dicey one,” said Crowe. “I have tried to not fall into the trap of trees versus cars.”

Just when it seemed that the trees were getting a reprieve, Vero Beach 32963 found paperwork that states that 143 palm trees and two oak trees will be cut down to accommodate the changes for the new loop for the parent pick-up spot and bus loop the city’s planning and zoning board must approve before construction can begin sometime in the spring. 

The school district can either pay $10,185 into the tree replacement fund or plant 72 palm trees and – at this point - an unclear number of oak trees on the school grounds, paperwork filed with the city suggests.

“This is where the (school district) creates problems,” said Crowe when told the extent of what the school district plan means for the trees. 

“People find this out and of course they are going to be left with the feeling that the process has not been open and transparent,” Crowe said. “Anyone who hears this will respond by saying, ‘OK, we need to find out what else is happening here.’”

Central Beach residents are expected to pack the Jan. 3 planning and zoning meeting to oppose the school board plan.

“They don’t have to do this – they just don’t have to do this,” said Date Palm resident Liz Stanley, an ardent supporter of protecting the hammock.

She also is a leader in the fight to block the district’s newest plan because it will nearly double the traffic routed onto her quiet street.

Stanley’s home on Date Palm has been a staging area for many people who have gathered to learn more about the district plan and sort out ways to stop it. Eleven people met Sunday at Stanley’s home.

Steve Keller, also of Date Palm, is having an engineer work on a possible replacement plan to add an additional traffic lane on Indian River Drive with the hopes of persuading the school district to change its proposal.

Another resident, Susan Lamont said she’s seeking the help of an attorney for the group which now unofficially calls itself the Beachland-Central Beach Good Neighbor Action Committee.

Residents like Crowe, Stanley, Keller and Lamont say they want to be good neighbors with the school, but they’d also like the school district to consider alerting them to its plans that will have an impact on their lives.

“We’ve been fighting to get a seat at the table,” Crowe told the group,  many  of  whom were gone over the summer months when the school board unanimously approved the plan to create the parent pick-up/drop-off spot on the south side of the school off of Mockingbird Lane.

Under this plan, motorists would have to get there primarily by using Date Palm because access from Beachland Boulevard would be cut off. That plan could nearly double the number of cars that use Date Palm each day, according to a city study.

Most of the people who drive on Date Palm live there and share the quaint, oak-lined street with dog walkers, joggers and bicyclists. 

There are no sidewalks. If most school parents use Date Palm to get to Mockingbird, the current rate of 300 cars per day using Date Palm will swell to at least 500.

“Date Palm Road between Indian River Drive and Mockingbird will show a noticeable increase over existing peak hour volumes,” state city documents for the planning and zoning board to consider.

While the percentage is high, staff notes also suggest that 500 vehicles is still well under the threshold of 1,000 cars a day – a common cutoff by experts for traffic that would adversely impact the quality of life for neighbors.

Stanley doesn’t see it that way which is why she has walked much of the neighborhood telling residents they need to join her group and speak up.

“This isn’t going to be a quaint street anymore,” Stanley said. “It’s going to be a massive traffic problem.”

Stanley has lived in Central Beach for 26 years.  Both of her children attended Beachland. Over the years, she’s seen significant growth at the school much of which is causing the traffic problems Central Beach residents face.

When Stanley’s daughter Corrine finished the fifth grade about 12 years ago, 320 students attended the school. 

The school has close to 600 students now with 344 children from the mainland, though much of the mainland population – 196 students – rides the school bus and routinely is not driven by their parents.