Q: It appears that the oaks at the (Riverchase shopping) center have been cut down. Was a tree removal permit pulled? Does this violate their landscape plan or the LDC (land development code)?
— Georgia Hiller, Collier County Commissioner, District 2
A: The county signed off on landscaping renovations that include plans to plant new trees to replace the live oaks and palms cut down last week at Riverchase Plaza on the northeastern corner of U.S. 41 North and Immokalee Road in North Naples.
The questions above were emailed Thursday by Commissioner Hiller to County Manager Leo Ochs Jr. after a constituent wrote Hiller last week to complain about "the rape of 20-year-old live oaks" at the shopping center.
"Today, as I was driving north on 41, I came upon the appallingly heartbreaking aftermath of destruction in the Riverchase Shopping Plaza," North Naples resident Angeliea Carson wrote Hiller. "There before my very eyes, was the remains of the rape of 20-year-old live oaks fronting the property along U.S. 41 and Immokalee! How in God's name could something like this happen and WHY? These trees were majestic and created a beautiful canopy throughout the shopping center! They devastated the whole parking lot!"
Turns out the shopping center's plan to replace and redesign the landscaping received administrative approval April 20 after its operators underwent what is called an "Insubstantial Change to the Site Development Plan," according to an employee of the county's Growth Management Division. Applicants, such as Riverchase's developers, wishing to remove more than 10 trees or perimeter landscaping must submit this "insubstantial change" plan to revise originally approved site development landscape plans.
Hiller could not be reached for comment on the issue as of late Sunday afternoon.
Trees causing a safety hazard is one of the considerations used by the county when evaluating tree removal applications, according to the county's Department of Zoning and Land Development Review.
The removal of the mature, overgrown landscaping – especially the live oaks – was a safety consideration for Riverchase shoppers, said Ryan Joyce, senior Florida real estate representative for Indianapolis-based Kite Realty Group, which bought Riverchase, Pine Ridge Crossing and Courthouse Shadows shopping centers in the Naples area six years ago.
"The large canopies of the oak trees had grown to the point that they blocked the light from the parking lot lights," he said. "The new design will allow for more light into the parking lot at night, increasing safety at the center."
In addition to replacing each tree, Joyce said the sea grape shrubs that were in most of the parking lot islands will be replaced with shrubs that sit lower to the ground. Again, the plan is to increase visibility for drivers in the lot, he said.
"We worked very hard with Collier County to ensure that we followed the code and we will be replacing each tree with a new one," Joyce said.
"The removal of the oak trees, palms, and sea grape shrubs was approved to improve the property and change the aesthetics of the center with a new landscaping design. This will give the center a fresh new look and open up visibility to the storefronts to help our tenants succeed with increased traffic and sales."
A manager of the local Publix, the supermarket that anchors the 18-store shopping center, said the store had a lot of customers complain last week about the landscaping removal, but she referred additional questions about the issue to the grocery chain's corporate office.
Neither the manager of Great Clips hair salon nor the owner of New York Pizza & Pasta in the plaza has been hearing complaints from patrons about the vanishing treescape. Both, however, said they were not aware of the center's landscaping plans nor told changes would occur.
Interestingly, a 25-year binding agreement between the adjoining Collier's Reserve Association and Riverchase Owners' Association Inc. regarding landscaping was signed in December 1992, nearly 20 years ago. The notarized document outlines landscaping standards and maintenance agreements between the country club and the adjacent shopping center to its west and North Collier Health Park to the east.
The document states that the parties believe it to be in their best interests to maintain the aesthetic standards and compatibility with each of the other adjoining properties, agreeing to maintain landscaping "in a continuously good and attractive condition."
Because the Riverchase project plans to replace the removed landscaping, it is unknown whether it would be a violation of the agreement. A representative of Collier's Reserve Association could not be reached for comment as of late Sunday afternoon.
Upon the agreement's expiration in 2017, it is automatically renewed for another 10 years unless all parties wish to terminate it, the document states.
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