BRADENTON -- The Florida Department of Transportation manages 186,000 acres of state highway right-of-way property which equates to one of every 200 acres in the entire land mass of the State of Florida. So when FDOT adopted an ambitious "roadside beautification program" to enhance enterprise, public health and safety, they claimed it would be focused on low maintenance, water conservation, and native planting. A closer look shows that they seem to have missed their mark entirely.
Under Section 334 of the Florida State Statutes, it is state policy to conserve and protect natural resources and scenic beauty. The statue empowers FDOT with conserving our natural roadside growth and scenery and provides for the implementation and maintenance of roadside conservation, enhancement, and stabilization programs.
To ensure FDOT's beautification program is implemented, Section 334 states, "No less than 1.5 percent of the amount contracted for construction projects shall be allocated by the department for the purchase of plant materials."
FDOT's Bold Vision for Florida’s Highway Beautification Program literature asserts, "This simple and sound investment approach grows in value and pays meaningful environmental and economic dividends indefinitely, unimpeded by current or future recessions.
Located at the intersection of I-75 and U.S. 301, in Ellenton, is the first one of Manatee County's "Bold Vision Landscapes." Lauren Hatchell, Public Relations Officer for the Media Relations Group, contracted by FDOT to oversee these projects, says there are more of them in the making.
The I-75/301 beautification project came with a hefty $1,000,000 price tag, which includes a three-year contract that covers maintenance and guarantees product survival. The project contract is with Manuel Diaz Farms (MDF), located in South Miami/Dade County.
But it only takes a drive by the project to see that not all is well. It has been months since the tree planting, and it doesn't appear to have had any attention since. Not only are a hundred or more of the trees struggling -- of the just over 500 planted -- but dozens are outright dead, and maintenance appears to have resigned.
To date, the FDOT Beautification Program has spent over $150 million, with a commitment to spend in excess of $500 million more over the next 20 years.
FDOT's stepped-up efforts added "Bold" to the program title, and FDOT is aggressively promoting the program.
Here is an excerpt from the Highway Beautification Program (HBP) Literature:
A. Success will be determined by how well Florida ensures that the transportation system is implemented in an environmentally responsible manner.
B. Include strategies to decrease greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
C. Accommodate the human scale, including pedestrian, bicycle, transit oriented, and other community enhancing features.
D. Plan, design, and construct transportation facilities in a manner that preserves and restores the function and character of the natural environment.
The HBP program states the up to 50 percent discount in the cost of nursery stock material brought on by the recent recession makes these projects even more opportunistic. But that claim, and the program as a whole, is not without criticism.
In defense of the overwhelming amount of projects landing in the lap of Manuel Diaz Farms, the contractor who was granted the I-75/301 project and many others equating to millions upon millions of dollars, project managers say the company has come in 50 percent lower than other bids. That might suggest Diaz is the only contractor discounting product.
In Miami, on State Road 836/Dolphin Expressway, critics accused the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority of spending excessive amounts of money on landscaping for its highways. The Diaz Farms project there cost taxpayers $4 million to landscape a three-mile corridor of S.R. 836.
In Miami, at the Killian Junction, Diaz Farms installed 56 Date palms at the price of over $7,800 a piece. And the bid on these trees are coming in at 51 percent below other bids?
The I-75/301 project must be getting at or over $2,000 a tree for most of the stock in the project. And the planting material used is in high majority "non-native material."
There are Foxtail Palms (origin, Australia); Bismarckia Palms, (origin, Madagascar); Date Palms (origin, Persian Gulf and Middle East).
There are also many Royal Palms, ones native to parts of the Caribbean, and a dozen paurotis which are native to Florida, and a few native Sabals (our state tree). But by all accounts, native palms are in the minority.
Much literature in the contract is dedicated to the rules of maintenance Diaz Farms must go by: scheduled fertilizing/herbicide program, weeding and edging schedule and a well-maintained irrigation system.
At places, the irrigation lines are disconnected or cracked. Weeds are waist high, and all look to be invasive material that are now or have been flowering and seeding; and there aren't any water barriers to stop the nutrients and herbicides from washing down to the Manatee River. The project sits on both the north and the south banks of the Manatee River.
Below are pictures taken this week of Frog Creek, several miles west of the I-75/301 project. Nutrients carried into the river are largely responsible for the estuary blooms that rob the oxygen from the water column, helping to turn fish-starved estuaries into mosquito ridden swamps.
FDOT says their bold landscaping reduces the cost of maintenance. With less to mow, they are said to be cutting down on the "carbon footprint" and stormwater run-off.
What is at the Ellenton intersection is the exact opposite of what bold landscaping is said to do.
With so many different arrangements and measurements between the multiple varieties of trees, mowing will be a nightmare (perhaps why it doesn't seem to be getting done). Mowing will likely require so many different machines and many times the operators, taking two to three times the man hours and equipment to maintain.
The State of Florida spends many millions every year combatting "invasive species." If at Ellenton, the grounds aren't maintained, the bold landscape will become a fountain of invasive seed straight into the Manatee River and soon sprouting on the river banks and into the estuaries.
Diaz Farms has over 20 projects ongoing with FDOT, into the tens of millions of dollars.
Manuel Diaz's past is littered with million dollar debacles. Dating back to the '90s, the Miami Herald has reported dozens of legal complaints where Diaz installed something other than the contracted material, didn't install material at all and/or overbilled.
In the year 2000, The New Miami News reported that Diaz was found guilty of Grand Larceny, for not installing over $1 million in palms he sold to Miami Dade County. But still, Diaz Farms is holding the top spot with FDOT. As the largest landscape contractor, Diaz currently has other projects in Manatee County.
Bottom line: regardless of the checkered history that follows Diaz Farms around, regardless of the many lobbyists Diaz Farms has in Tallahassee to keep them top dog, citizens are getting a bum deal that will never come close to measuring up to the low expense, low maintenance, non polluting, naturally beautiful landscape that should be on all property that sends run-off stormwater to the river.
There isn't a more beautiful stand of trees then a stand of our state tree the sabal palm surrounded by saw palmettos. More than 100 native species of insects and animals whose survival is essential to the sustainability of many more species, routinely live in and around them.
The toxins, nutrients and herbicides from this project will go into the Manatee River. What we have in Ellenton is a mistake that will forever be a mistake until an entirely different plan is constructed.
To have used native material that really would have accomplished the stated goals of FDOT, the taxpayer would have gotten what visitors really come to Florida for -- its natural beauty -- and they would have gotten it for a fraction of the cost.
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