OCOEE, Fla. - Driving down Bluford Avenue in Ocoee, it's hard not to notice the majestic Sylvester palm trees.
The unique-looking date palms, recognizable for a diamondlike pattern cut into the trunk, line the streets just a few feet apart from each other. There are dozens of them in front of Ocoee Middle School.
Ocoee City Manager Robert Frank said each tree costs $3,500.
Native palm trees, or cabbage palms, can be purchased and installed for a fraction of that cost, around $50 each, landscaper Doug Dickerman, owner of Paradigm Outdoor, told News 6.
"We can install 25 native palm trees for the price of one specimen date palm," Dickerman said.
Frank said the Sylvester date palm trees are part of Ocoee's redevelopment project.
"The landscape plan was narrowed down and selected during the downtown master plan development, public charrettes, public on-site walking tours and City Commission public presentations," Frank said. "I'm sure there were more inexpensive options, however, the landscape plans were presented in public for selection without ranking the cost of each tree. This is a once-in-a-century downtown redevelopment project, and I believe the landscape plan was selected with the belief that the tree cost variation amortized over a century or two was not a major consideration."
But it's not just Ocoee.
At almost every flyover, at many city entrances and at some major intersections, pricey palm trees line medians and curbs. And they're flanked by costly ground cover and expensive shrubs and plants.
Cities and counties call them "gateway features" that make a statement and set off the city or county.
Casselberry Deputy Director of Public Works Kelly Brock said the city worked with the Florida Department of Transportation and Seminole County on the U.S. 17-92 and State Road 436 flyover and the Red Bug Lake Road and State Road 436 flyover to select "enhanced" landscaping.
"The projects were built with enhanced landscaping largely because the city wanted them to be," Brock said. "Recognizing the aesthetic value of such an investment, we worked with FDOT and Seminole County to incorporate nice landscapes into these projects as they were being designed."
Seminole County said the total cost of landscaping at the Red Bug Lake Road flyover and vicinity cost nearly $1.7 million. The state of Florida Transportation Regional Incentive Program funded $1,369,157, and Seminole County paid the landscaping contractor $323,000, Seminole County's financial business administrator said.
And then part of the landscaping died.
Brock said Casselberry inherited major problems with the landscaping at the Red Bug Lake Road flyover when it took over maintenance of the landscaping from Seminole County.
Irrigation was faulty, the soil was bad and, as a result, shrubs and plants were dying, Brock said.
"Everything went wrong," Dickerman said. "In some spots, they were overwatering. You could watch the plants just die from lack of care. Some trees were planted in standing water. It never went well. Italian cypress, ligustrums, ornamental peanut, jasmine — it all died. The Italian cypress are incredibly expensive trees, and they were pulled out because they died."
Brock said Casselberry recently spent $99,326 to replant and modify the Red Bug Lake Road
Much of the expensive ground cover was replaced with low-maintenance sod.
Down the road at U.S. 17-92 and State Road 436, some of the jasmine ground cover that was installed in 2016, when the flyover was completed, has died and has not been replaced.
Dickerman suspects the jasmine died because of a lack of proper maintenance.
"To get the ground cover established, it takes a lot of manual labor to go in and actually pull the weeds," Dickerman said. "A lot of guys, instead of coming by and pulling the weed, they'll spray it with Roundup rather than bending over to pick it up. And when the Roundup hits the other plant (jasmine), it's dead. To do it right takes time and money. I can come by and spray Roundup on this whole median in 20 minutes by myself. It would take four guys 2 1/2 hours to weed it by hand to do it right," he said.
Brock said the U.S. 17-92 flyover is still new enough that it continues to being maintained by the landscape contractor who originally installed the landscaping, but soon Casselberry will take over the maintenance.
"With that in mind, we have planned and budgeted for maintenance of these flyovers and all of the various (rights of way) and medians that we maintain citywide," Brock said. "That is not to say we do not occasionally encounter unexpected issues and costs, but neither is that an issue unique to landscapes."
Brock said taxpayers will not be on the hook for improper landscaping maintenance, at least not in Casselberry.
"For landscapes that are the city’s maintenance responsibility, we have performance-based expectations of our contractors," Brock said. "For example, if, hypothetically, our contractor were to cause damage to plantings due to overspray or use of an inappropriate herbicide, we would typically expect them to replace the plantings in kind at no cost to the city."
FDOT officials said jasmine shrubs were recently replaced at the U.S. 17-92 flyover because they were not established. The original landscaping contractor paid for the replacement.
FDOT said sod was also replaced, at a cost of $6,902, because it wasn't established.
In 2016, FDOT said, it spent nearly $600,000 on sprinklers, shrubs and Sylvester palm trees at the U.S. 17-92 flyover.
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