As Miami Beach sustainability director departs, activists seek a more sensitive replacement

Sea grape trees across from the Alexander Hotel were illegally cut with support from former Miami Beach Sustainability Director Elizabeth Wheaton. (Taylor Gutierrez/SFMN)

Back in 2015, the New Tropic profiled City of Miami Beach Sustainability Director Elizabeth Wheaton.

“She’s changing the tide by seeking innovative ideas to ready Miami Beach against the threat of sea-level rise, engaging with community members to learn what they need and teach them what they need to know,” wrote author Ashley Martinez.

But early this month after she left her job at the city, Rick Kendle, co-administrator for NoBE News – The North Beachian, a Facebook page for the northern Miami Beach neighborhood, celebrated.

“Under her watch, mangroves, sea grapes and trees were removed without an appropriate permit,” Kendle commented. “Wheaton was political when the city needed a science-based environmental leader.”

Wheaton’s departure coincided with a wave of protest from residents against the excessive trimming of trees, especially state-protected sea grape trees, in the North Beach Oceanside Park and the Miami Beach boardwalk areas.

Pointing out the trees’ environmental and local benefits, many residents, including members of the Mid-Beach Neighborhood Association (MBNA), denounced the severe cutting along the shoreline that started around mid-summer and continued during September.

“In June, […] the drastic pruning of the sea grapes within the dunes across from the Alexander Hotel left them as stubs,” said MBNA president and Miami Beach resident Anamarie Ferreira de Melo. “We felt they needed to be trimmed in a manner that encouraged their growth in order to create shade trees for the beachwalk in the future.” 

Miami Beach City Manager Alina Hudak announced a plan in September to address pressing issues, including homelessness. When seagrape trees in Oceanside Park were cut to limit the shaded areas, some members of the public criticized the move. Wheaton supported it.

“I cannot believe that such damage has been done to this area that has been so beautiful since I got here,” said long-time Miami Beach resident Terrence Rountree. “I walk around the area often and I just think that Ms. Hudak has made a terrible decision.”

The cutting (shown in the photos above) is inconsistent with the official Sea Grape Trimming Guidelines, which are enforced by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection:

“For trees, six feet in height or more, no more than one-third reduction in the height of each tree annually [can be cut], provided there is no more than one-third of the leaf mass removed annually,” states the guidelines. “Pruning shall not result in plants being reduced to less than six feet in height.” 

The measures taken also put the city at odds with subparagraph 161.053(2)(a) of the Florida Statutes: “No person, firm, corporation, or governmental agency shall damage or cause to be damaged sand dunes or the vegetation growing on the dune system.”

Multiple phone calls and emails during September and October to members of the Environment and Sustainability Department were not returned.

For now, as co-administrator of the North Beach Facebook page Ariana Hérnandez comments, the city needs to hire a new Miami Beach sustainability director.

“Let’s hope her successor is qualified as well as community-minded and of course, a nature advocate,” Hérnandez said.

This tweet illustrates the transformation of the sea grape trees in Miami Beach. 

Taylor Gutierrez is a Cuban-American digital journalism student and intends to pursue a career as a multimedia journalist, combining her passions for writing and photography. Gutierrez currently works as a Communications Associate for FIU's Institute of Environment where she discusses issues within the field of environmental science. She hopes her writing will help bridge the gap in communication between media consumers and the scientific research community.