Three weeks ago, Stephen Nagy was driving along A1A when he noticed a row of sea grape saplings freshly planted on the beach near his house. Right now, the plants don't look very menacing — just pathetic branches with a few leaves on them. But according to Nagy, it's just a matter of time before these sea grape saplings mutate into one giant, 20-foot-high den for illicit activity.
"The sea grapes grow to be 20 feet high and will attract a lot of illegal activity," Nagy tells New Times. "People will be coming in for romantic interludes, disguise themselves in the leaves, even in the day."
The sea grapes are part of the county's $11.8 million initiative to revamp the A1A promenade after it collapsed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Nagy and other residents who live in the nine side streets wedged between Birch State Park and A1A mostly support those efforts to raise and bolster the seawall. Their current gripe is with the county's decision to plant sea grape trees along a one-mile stretch of dunes. County officials stress that the trees will prevent beach erosion and create a natural barrier for coastal flooding. Residents aren't convinced. Not only will the trees block the ocean view, they argue, but the dense foliage and shade will attract criminal activity.
"Our concern is safety," says Brian Donaldson, president of the Birch Park Beach Homeowner's Association. "If [the sea grapes] are allowed to grow more than a three- to four-foot shrub, they will become an issue for vagrancies, illegal activities, and for people to hide behind and jump out when people are walking on the new promenade or using the beach shower."
Donaldson stressed that residents support the new promenade, especially the higher seawalls and turtle-friendly lights. The sea grapes, however, are one "hiccup," he says. They have suggested using seagrass or sea oats instead to build the dune. Donaldson reports that some residents have emailed him saying they have no issue with the sea grapes, yet a lot do. Some residents have also complained that they don't want the ocean view obstructed, and some with oceanfront homes are concerned about the trees blocking their view.
"The oceanfront homes will not be able to see the ocean," says Nagy. "We will never see the ocean again from A1A."
Some have also complained they won't see the beach while driving on that stretch — but Donaldson explains that the homeowner's association is not concerned with the views. "With
Nagy has been emailing with city and county commissioners about the sea grapes. In one email, Nagy writes: "These sea grapes will be a haven for the illegal sex and drug activity just like at NE 18th St... When the nighttime activity starts, the residents are supposed to be up all night calling the police and wait an hour for them to show up... The hypodermic needles and used condoms were the greatest
County Commissioner Chip LaMarca did not return a request for comment. But in an email to Nagy, LaMarca explained that the dunes are needed to prevent beach erosion. "I will ask you to remember what our beautiful beach looked like after Thanksgiving 2012 when the storm hit our 'duneless' beach," LaMarca wrote. "We cannot have a stable dune system without the right plant material and according to our beach project director, the strongest and the most stable material for the base of the dunes is the sea grape."
This stretch of beach is not the first to have sea grape trees planted. There are sea grape trees planted all along the South Florida coast, like at Haulover Beach in Miami-Dade County and just further north of 18th Street in Fort Lauderdale. Nicole Sharp, the natural resources administrator for Broward County, explains that sea grape trees are one of the best plant species for stabilizing dunes and preventing beach erosion. The homeowner's association suggested using seagrass, but Sharp says that species is "really juvenile."
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"This specific area of shoreline is seriously eroded," Sharp says. "[The sea grape trees] represent a type of vegetation that is hearty and fortifies that area. [They are] very resistant to the harsh environment and are extremely successful at stabilizing the dune."
Donaldson says there's little he can do to remove the sea grape saplings at this point. He remains
"Nobody from the city or county will maintain anything," Nagy says.
"We don't really have a choice at this point," Donaldson adds.