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Royal palm trees to remain planted despite ordinance; Council to change code

By Staff | Mar 25, 2008

Just a week after being told that they would have to remove as many as 80 royal palms recently planted along a roadway, residents of a southwest Cape Coral neighborhood won a reprieve Monday after the City Council unanimously passed a moratorium on enforcing the code that banned the trees and pledged to change the ordinance so they could stay.

About 100 neighbors showed up at the meeting with nearly a dozen pleading with council to find a way to save the palms. Residents said they were simply trying to beautify their neighborhood, raise property values and boost the city’s look.

“We feel our neighborhood has greatly improved because we have added these trees and a lot of people have gone through a lot of expense to do so,” said neighbor Rosemary Pond.

“I’d like to think that all of Cape Coral would want to have a neighborhood as beautiful as that,” said resident Jandy McCoy.

At last week’s meeting, council voted 7-1 denying a variance request to bypass the code and allow the trees to remain in perpetuity.

Though they essentially reversed their decision, members of council defended their previous votes saying that the city needed to abide by its existing code and pointing out that granting the request could have caused a domino effect.

“I had to uphold the law,” said Councilmember Dolores Bertolini.

Monday’s vote allows residents to hang on to their trees until at least June 1, pending a tweak of the ordinance. Councilmember Eric Grill volunteered to take point in that effort, proposing to make homeowners responsible for caring for the trees and ensuring that they do not affect power lines.

“I think that is an easy fix we can get done quick,” he said.

Mayor Eric Feichthaler pointed out that the existing ordinance was actually a move to be less restrictive as previous laws forbade any plantings in the right of way. He said the only concern that blocked adding royal palms to the list of permitted plantings was the safety of the city’s power grid.

“We need to green up our community, I think we all agree with that,” said Feichthaler. “I think common sense will dictate that you don’t plant them directly under the power lines.”

Many residents in attendance nodded their heads when being told they will be responsible for their plantings, appearing willing to take that responsibility.

Some asked the council why their neighborhood was “singled out” as many other areas across the city have trees in similar proximity to the right of way and power lines.

Feichthaler pointed out that code enforcement usually responds and writes citations when complaints are filed, but City Manager Terry Stewart could not confirm that a complaint was the reason officers first informed residents that they were not in compliance with the law.

He added that the landscaping firm that planted most of the trees in the neighborhood hurt residents by failing to follow the code.

“They really are the victims, not of the city of Cape Coral, but of someone who did not operate in their best interest,” he said.

Contractor Daniel Sheppard defended his actions, pointing out that he charged residents only $200 a piece for installing the trees and has tried to donate plantings to spruce up medians and other areas across the Cape.

“I think I did a good thing for the city,” he said.

Whether what he did was exactly kosher is up for debate, but the way the area looks is not.

“In the 18 years I lived there, the neighborhood never looked so good,” said resident John Amable.

Other notable action

— The new Utilities Expansion Project committee was officially organized and its eight members selected, one of which is former mayor Arnold Kempe. The other members are: Phil Boller, John Barth, John Sullivan, Gordon Ultsch, Robert Dudley, Jack Schrager and Nicholas Tomacelli.

— Council enacted an amnesty program for residents who have a lien against their properties. Elected officials and city staff hope the program, which allows property owners to settle their liens at the fraction of the outstanding amount, will bring residents into compliance and clear the books.