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  • William Wilsher


I am writing this even as the effects of COVID-19 will not be fully known for some time; as South Florida and the entire nation will still be coming to grips with the devastation of this disease, as well as what is happening to our local, national, and world economy. For those who may not remember, our nation and in particular our State had finally reached full and even surpassed the economic recovery from the decline of the real estate market, and the construction and associated industries that had occurred during the late end of the last decade, from 2007 to 2010. 

For the past three and a half years, I have served as the Senior Landscape Planner for the City of Delray Beach. I have personally experienced the surge in building permit applications and the associated landscape permits. Just a drive through our City would show the number of  construction projects ranging from single family residences to multi-story mixed use commercial/residential structures. In our City, the construction ‘crane’ seems like the Florida State Bird. I have also experienced many times when substitutions have had to be made because a particular tree species was unavailable, or it could not be provided in the size that was specified. What have driven many of the decisions and certainly the required sizes for those trees have been Landscape Ordinances. 

Landscape Ordinances came into being in our State and in particular in South Florida, in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. Delray Beach is no exception. Their Landscape Ordinance was created and approved by the City Commission in 1974. With that approval, came the need to have someone administer it, so the first person, a Landscape Architect, was hired. Since then four other people have served in that position, with various titles. The current one, that I serve under, is as the Senior Landscape Planner.

Under the current version of the approved Landscape Regulations for the City of Delray Beach (Land Development Regulations-LDR 4.6.16), the section that gives requirements for trees on landscape projects is Section (E) Landscape Design Standards: (5) Trees: and it states:

  • “Shall be a species having an average mature spread of crown greater than twenty (20) feet and having trunks which can be maintained in a clean condition with over six (6) feet of clear mature wood. Trees having an average mature spread of crown less than twenty (20) feet may be substituted by grouping the same as to create the equivalent of a twenty (20) spread of crown. Tree species shall be a minimum of sixteen (16) feet in overall height at the time of planting, with a minimum of six (6) feet of single straight trunk with eight (8) feet of clear trunk, and a seven (7) foot spread of canopy. Tree species required for single family homes and duplexes shall be a minimum of twelve (12) feet in overall height at the time of planting, with a minimum of four (4) feet of single straight trunk with six (6) feet of clear trunk, and a six (6) foot spread of canopy.” 

Further in that Section, it states:

  • “When more than ten (10) trees are required to be planted to meet the requirements of this section, a mix of species shall be provided. The number of species shall vary according to the overall number of trees required to be planted.”  

A Table is displayed in that Section which indicates the following:

Required Number of  Trees      Minimum Number of Species

11 – 20 2

21 – 30 3

31 – 40 4

41  + 5

Those requirements have and continue to create a dilemma. When reviewing the availability of tree species at sixteen (16) feet in overall height in PlantFinder and other industry publications, it is difficult to find even a dozen choices. The tree species that are mass produced on tree farms are found in nurseries in the Homestead area of Metro-Dade County and in nurseries north of Palm Beach County or on the west coast of Florida. The Homestead area produces subtropical tree species and the Martin County north and Fort Myers areas produce temperate tree species. For Palm Beach County, the dozen tree species that are available include Oak, Magnolia, and Holly species from the north and west and Mahogany, Buttonwood, and Gumbo Limbo from the south to fulfill the code-required trees. With the demands of the current times, the supply has dwindled at times. However, what really falls by the wayside is the requirement for the “mix of species”. In an area where species diversity is paramount. We are naturally way more diverse than these requirements. What we are receiving in our City, Delray Beach can, in many cases, appear like a monoculture of Live Oak trees.

It became apparent to me that at least this area of the Landscape Ordinance needed to be adjusted. (What I found was that there were many sections of the code where updates, alternates, deletions, and additions needed to be made. I am carrying those out at this time.) One of the first changes I have recommended is to still require the need for sixteen (16) foot overall height trees, along streets and within parking areas. This is for several reasons. First, that height of the tree provides a more substantial caliper of the tree. For trees that are subject to the effects of automobile movement, and exposure to winds, it makes sense. With the height, comes the appropriate clear trunk to allow for all vehicles, including trash trucks, buses, and other multi-wheeled vehicles to pass beneath them without affecting the tree canopy. Finally, that size tree immediately meets the CPTED (Community Policing Through Environmental Design) requirements that all law enforcement forces demand. However, in my revision to the Landscape Ordinance, I have suggested leniency in the height requirement (reduction to the minimum size for residential trees to twelve (12) foot in overall height) for perimeter and other site trees. What this should open up is a myriad of trees that may not be found at the larger size but are still readily available at this reduced size. The list of tree species includes many interesting flowering varieties and smaller trees that will offer the diversity that is desired. Some of these trees may not have quite the clear trunk or may not be as storm fast. Because they are located on the perimeter of properties, the lower branching may help with providing for screening and there are usually hedges in those areas to help with wind protection. I have felt so confident in this change in the Landscape Ordinance providing additional tree species to appear on Landscape Plans, that I am recommending the Table in Section (E) be changed and the numbers of tree species increased as follows:

Required Number of Trees       Minimum Number of Species

11 – 20 4

21 – 30   6

31 – 40   8

41 + 10

Upon releasing this information to Landscape Architects and Landscape Designers, it has been met with almost unanimous approval. People that work with and love plants want to have a lot of choices.

Even with what economic downturn may be experienced by the effects of COVID-19, I feel this is the best course of direction for our City and maybe all of South Florida. Optimistically, we will recover; we always have. If nothing else, our State’s clean air and clean water will continue to attract those who desire the same things that we have. Now they will experience it in our City with a better variety of trees.

Note: The changes to the City of Delray Beach’s Landscape Ordinance are in draft and must be approved by several City Boards and finally by the City Commission.

Written by William Wilsher, Senior Landscape Planner, City of Delray Beach

Landscape Design at City Hall in City of Delray Beach, Palm Beach County, Florida


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