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Trimming of Martin County's iconic Banyan Tree Tunnel raises concerns

'It makes me sick. I was on the phone. With everybody. That's why you're here," John Mildenberger says
Posted at 6:21 PM, Sep 06, 2023

STUART, Fla. — Residents along Southeast St. Lucie Boulevard in Martin County have raised concerns over the trimming of the county's iconic Banyan Tree Tunnel.

The county landmark has long been a beloved spot for a scenic drive or a photo opp, and if you drive through the whimsical canopy of twisted branches, dangling roots and flickering light, you'll soon see why.

"People come here to film graduations, weddings, it's incredible," John Mildenberger, who lives right next to it, said. "You know, that's what gets my heart. It's pretty cool."

John Mildenberger, who lives right next to the Banyan Tree Tunnel, said he noticed the trees that form the canopy of the have been significantly cut back. Sept. 6, 2023
John Mildenberger, who lives right next to the Banyan Tree Tunnel, said he noticed the trees that form the canopy of the have been significantly cut back.

Recently, Mildenberger said he noticed the trees that form the canopy have been significantly cut back.

"You can see where these (branches) have been blunt-cut away from the wires," Mildenberger said.

Mildenberger shared with WPTV pictures showing piles of branches where the trees used to reach all the way to his lawn and showed us the limbs above them, which are clearly chopped, allowing pockets of sun to poke through what used to be a complete tunnel.

John Mildenberger said a contractor hired by Florida Power & Light cut down some tree limbs of the Banyan Tree Tunnel down. Sept. 4, 2023
John Mildenberger said a contractor hired by Florida Power & Light cut down some tree limbs of the Banyan Tree Tunnel down.

Mildenberger said a contractor hired by Florida Power & Light cut them down.

"It makes me sick. I was on the phone with everybody. That's why you're here," Mildenberger said.

The banyan tree, or Ficus Benghalensis, isn't native to Florida, and even though they're not considered problematic, they are technically considered invasive and aren't protected.

Florida, thus, doesn't have any specific laws about cutting or trimming them.

The Banyan Tree Tunnel, however, is protected by the county, and Martin County ordinances dictate that the county's right of way extends 60 feet, or 30 feet in each direction,from the county road they maintain. Trimming the banyan trees within that perimeter is allowed with approval from the county.

Todd Warren, Martin County's Urban Forestry manager, said it necessary for FPL to trim trees. Sept. 6, 2023
Todd Warren, Martin County's Urban Forestry manager, said it necessary for FPL to trim trees.

"We have had communication with FPL and have met on-site with them and their contractor," Todd Warren, Martin County's urban forestry manager, said.

Warren said FPL's trimming isn't only allowed, but necessary and routine.

WPTV contacted FPL, and a representative released this statement, reading:

"The trimming along Banyan Tree Tunnel in Martin County was part of a preventative maintenance program. The area required adequate line clearance to ensure continued reliable electric service for FPL customers. We worked closely with the county to develop a tree-by-tree plan that kept aesthetics in mind. Prior to the work, FPL delivered letters to customers in the affected area, explaining the reason for the project. All trimming was performed in accordance with industry-standard specifications."

However, because the tunnel is protected by the county, Warren said he is working with FPL to clear lines in the future without creating gaping holes like the one above Mildenberger's home.

One of the options Warren is considering is to trim a shorter amount more frequently, as opposed to significantly trimming less frequently.

"This particular stretch of road is protected, we hold it near and dear to our hearts," Warren said.

Mildenberger appreciated that effort and said while he understands the need for trimming, he fears for his tunneled paradise, too.

"Protect this canopy," he said. "It's a huge resource for the county."