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Beachland oaks may be saved

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of April 5, 2012)
Photo: The daily traffic gridlock at Beachland Elementary.

A plan in the works for about a year now to cut a swath through the lush oak hammocks near Beachland Elementary School to build two driveways onto the school grounds for buses and parental pick up spots could be scrapped.

School district officials have said they have no other choice but to cut down some of the trees that border the north-side of the school so bus and parental traffic can be rerouted to ease the daily traffic gridlock.

The hammock is home to wild turkeys, gopher tortoises, bobcats, snakes and other wildlife, critics of the tree cutting plan say. Environmentalists say it is a vital nesting area for many kinds of birds including owls, woodpeckers, great crested fly catchers, blue jays, hawks, cat birds and cardinals as well.

The district’s original plan, many neighbors and even some teachers say, flies in the face of what children should be taught about being good stewards of the environment.

"I think we surrender to the car too much," said Central Beach resident Bettina Marchase.  For the past year, Central Beach neighbors have protested the district’s plan to cut into the hammocks, one of the last such pieces of undeveloped land on the barrier island.

Principal Carol Wilson said the plan to cut the trees could be scrubbed although she would not say what the school district now plans to do. "We certainly did hear the neighbors loud and clear," she said.

The district's apparent change of heart comes after more than 80 people voiced concerns about cutting the trees last week during a two-hour meeting at the school in which several school district employees as well as an architect and Vero Beach City Manager Jim O'Connor got an earful.

Missing from all the comments was any support for the school plan.

"We have to protect the woods," said resident Jim Shea. "…We have an obligation to save these woods."

Many people suggested the cutting was a done deal, further raising people’s ire at the meeting.

Apparently it wasn’t.

Two days after the meeting at the school, Indian River County District Schools Superintendent Fran Adams called for a meeting with Wilson.

Wilson said she is not at liberty to discuss some of the options considered but she reiterated that the concerns of those who oppose the plan have been taken to heart.

"I think the superintendent is amenable to other options," she said. "Other options would not be invasive to the hammocks."

Wilson said safety has always been in the forefront of the plan.

The heart of the problem stems from a growing pains that the once little island community school is suffering. When the school was built in 1956, there was just one classroom for each grade level. The number of classrooms has swelled and the school no longer serves just the beachside community.

About half of the 600 pupils attending Beachland now come from off the island, and under a six-year-old school board mandate that all Indian River County elementary schools have about 750 students, the Beachland population could grow further, officials say.

School officials tried to explain during the meeting with parents that the problems with parent- and school-bus pick up would only be exasperated as the school grew.  And indeed, there does appear to be a problem with the current set up at the school now.

A little girl one day last week raced over to the last of the cars in the parent pick-up spot and yelled out, "Mommy what took you so long?"

That last car at 3:45 p.m. finally ended the day for the scores of parents who waited to pick up their children in a line that formed well before 3 p.m.   By the time school let out at 3:20 p.m., cars stretched across the grounds and down Indian River Drive, thwarting school bus drivers' attempts to get past them and to the designated spot on the other side of the school where they load the buses.

"If all the buses come in at once, then you’ve got a real problem," said driver Tonya McDonald.

Wilson said the likely next step would be for the school board to discuss the idea of making other arrangements to improve the bus and parent pick up situation, rather than cutting through the oak hammock.

News that the current plan could be scrapped comes as island residents sent out a mass e-mail saying they were planning a protest later this month.

"Earth Day is near and instead of celebrating wildlife the residents of Central Beach are fighting to save it," said Laura Guttridge of Central Beach, organizer of the protest.

"These woodlands are the last safe haven for wildlife in the Central Beach community," said Guttridge. "I have personally spotted bobcats, tortoises and other various species either existing or entering those woods. My daughter and I often see this beautiful little painted turtle.

“He ventures out occasionally to graze on the low grasses at the edge of the woods. How heartbreaking it would be to see his home turned into a concrete reserve parking space after he has flourished there for so many years…I suspect we will see many of these animals lying dead as road kill, simply scraped up off the pavement and discarded like trash."

Phyllis Frey, a resident of Date Palm, said she’d like to believe that the matter will be resolved without cutting down trees. She has been circulating a petition in the area to be presented to the school board. In just one day, she got 100 signatures.

"Our primary goal is to protect the (hammock). I feel it can be done and it should be done," Frey said.