By Mike Lednovich
Representing an alliance of conservation groups, Julie Ferreira with the Nassau County Sierra Club urged city commissioners Tuesday to take proactive steps to save a towering cluster of oaks at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Eighth Street from being damaged by pending construction.
Over the years, the tree roots have caused the sidewalk and pavers adjacent to the Schoolhouse Inn and Hoyt House to become unsafe and a tripping hazard to pedestrians. The sidewalk is scheduled to be replaced by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).
“In the (city) budget it looks like there’s $300,000 in the tree fund and we would like to ask that these funds be used to relocate the historic pavers and the costs for protecting the trees.” Ferreira said.
“Our group wants you to understand there is no replacement for these trees. There is no cash equivalent for these trees. That there is no adequate penalty for causing damage to these trees. And that the trees must be protected, preserved and maintained.”
She said the trees have not fulfilled their life spans, which is 500 years.
Hexagonal pavers, which allow water into the subsoil, were originally installed in 1904. The pavers run in front of Hoyt House on Atlantic Avenue.
“We’re ready for money to be spent. We’re ready for the city to coordinate with FDOT as this project moves forward,” Ferreira said. “We encourage any avoidance of soil and root disturbances because that’s crucial in the tree protection zone. It must be funded and it must be a priority. We don’t know if FDOT will fund that (new pavers) but it’s time for the city to step up.”
Lisa Finklestein, director of the Main Street program, also spoke to commissioners about the tree preservation issue along with replacing the pavers.
“We’ve been urging the city to maintain the historic hex pavers. Those are original and over 100 years old. We know they’re in bad shape and they can’t all be saved,” Finklestein said. “We’re confident that the large oak tree on Eighth can be saved. It will again take your support and letting city staff and FDOT know that’s what we want. That we want to maintain the character of our city through our beautiful oak trees and our historic sidewalks.”
In 1987, an agreement between the city of Fernandina Beach and FDOT was reached that spelled out the responsibility for maintaining the hex pavers sidewalk to the city.
But last June, interim City Manager Charles George told city commissioners that neither the city nor FDOT was maintaining the sidewalks. George asked the commission to cancel the agreement, which was later voided.
Ferreira said replacing the historic hex pavers with similar pavers was crucial to protecting the health of the oak trees.
“The health of these trees on the corner is intricately connected to the utilization of historic pavers. If we’re not laying pavers in a pervious base that means we’re digging down to create a base for a sidewalk. Any type of digging or soil movement around those roots will impact the long term health of those trees.”
She said the city needs to assume the maintenance responsibilities for the sidewalk.
“I don’t know that FDOT wants to maintain pavers,” she said. “Those trees are iconic, that is the statement of the ambiance of our town. Everybody stops at the stop light, that is the welcome. So it’s up to the city to protect it.”
Mayor Bradley Bean said FDOT was working on an easement with Hoyt House that will go around the tree and save the tree. No other commissioners spoke to the issue.