SNELL PARK AND THE INDIAN LAUREL
In a strong democracy, people are always up in arms about something. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” we like to say.
Allowed to voice their opinions, people will. Quietly and politely, at first. Showing cautious and diplomatic respect for the officials whom they wish to persuade to act for or against any given issue. And there’s always an issue. Now people are up in arms over a ficus tree in Snell Park.
Snell Park is at the foot of Almeria Avenue off McGregor Boulevard. It’s only 60 feet wide along Valencia Way, and about 200 feet deep. A white shell walkway curves through the park to the broad, shimmering river. At the seawall, two benches face the water. That’s it.
Except for the tree. The tree is immense, majestic. With its more than 8,000-square-foot canopy, it dominates this small park, upstaging even the river. Like a pantheistic god, this Indian laurel has flourished gloriously here, clutching the earth with great, serpentine roots and reaching with massive, muscled arms to the passing skies of nearly 100 years.
Many people love this tree to the point of idolatry. Others, not unreasonably, fear it.
The Snell Brothers
The lot in which this tree lives was a gift to the people of Fort Myers in 1927 by developer Getty Snell. Getty’s brother was Commodore Perry Snell, one of the principal, early developers of St. Petersburg. In 1924, the Snell brothers turned their attention to the promising, but as yet underdeveloped riverside town of Fort Myers. Getty’s son, Perry Gayden Snell, left Tulane University (with no apparent reluctance) to join his father and Uncle Perry in their Fort Myers venture.
The Snell brothers built their curiously narrow (15-feet-wide), 3-story office building on Bayview Court facing First Street and began buying raw land along young McGregor Boulevard to develop into vast subdivisions of homes. In the next 3 years they spent 1.25 million dollars in planning and developing Valencia Terrace, Valencia Court, Carlton Grove, Allen Court, and Allen Park subdivisions. In 1926, they platted a subdivision that extended from McGregor to Cleveland Avenue and from Edison Avenue to Manuel’s Branch and they named it Edison Park. These were exclusive subdivisions; the purchase prices were high and included gas, water and sewer services, sidewalks and landscaped, hard-surface streets.
With the gradual deflation of the Florida real estate bubble, however, Getty Snell struggled to save these Fort Myers investments, until, only months after the stock market crash in 1929, he literally dropped dead of a heart attack in his office in downtown Fort Myers. (C. Perry died almost penniless, also of a heart attack, in 1942.)
Young Perry G. Snell was left to manage alone. He was only 25, and not really cut out for grand-scheming. The Snell properties slipped through his fingers like sand and crushed shell. He retained only his home on Cordova in the Valencia Court subdivision. Having grown up fishing and hunting around Lake Chicot in his home state of Arkansas, he turned for income to the thing he knew best—fishing.
From dawn to dark, fishing with rod and reel in a homemade wooden boat, he brought prodigious hauls of fish to Kelly’s Fish Market on Jackson Street downtown, but the fish sold for only cents per pound. It was hard to make a living.
As a child, Perry’s son, Frank, remembers people coming to house with quit claim deeds for his dad to sign to clear up titles and release the Snell Brothers’ former holdings to new owners, but he paid no attention to such matters. He had never met either his grandfather, Getty, or his great uncle, C. Perry Snell, and his father never mentioned them. And then his father died in 1966, when Frank was a junior in college.
It was more than 20 years later that Frank learned from his half-brother, Perry G. Snell, Jr., that his great-uncle and his grandfather had begun the subdivisions up one side and down the other of McGregor Boulevard, between the river and Cleveland Avenue. By this time, Frank was the owner and managing partner of Hughes, Snell & Co. CPAs in Fort Myers. Half-brother, Perry, was 20 years his senior. Born in 1926 to Perry, Sr.’s first wife, Perry, Jr. was more aware of his family history.
When Perry died in 2011, his wife gave Frank his brother’s collection of documents related to the Snell developments in Fort Myers. Among them was plat for Valencia terrace, dated the 21st day of October 1924. A center lot fronting the river on Valencia Way was marked with an “A.”
The deed to this lot, presented to the city council on June 4, 1927, states that “the city is to use said property for street or park purposes only…it shall always be used by the general public in gaining access to the river, and shall never be leased, or used by private individuals.”
In 84 years, the city had done nothing with the lot. Frank decided it was time the city lived up to its obligation, but the city council claimed it had no money to make the needed improvements, so, as his progenitors would have done, Frank Snell put up his own money to turn a weedy lot into the sweetest little riverside park in Fort Myers. In 2012, he dedicated Snell Park to his grandparents, Getty and Rosa Snell.
Ans then an issue arose over the park’s big ficus tree. You know how it goes. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
The tree has trespassed upon the empty lot to the east of it. A sales contract is pending on this lot. The buyer wants to build a house, but he’s worried about the tree. A ficus is no respecter of boundaries. The buyer fears that if he builds next to this tree, its roots will work their way under the foundation of his house and lift it, well, off the ground. He fears that this ficus will grow to love his house, to…sort of…crush it in its embrace.
In December of 2017, a Public Works representative and the buyer met in the park to examine the situation. The buyer says he only wanted a permit to cut back the limbs amorously overhanging his property and to establish a barrier to the tree’s groping roots. In January, however, Fort Myers’s city manager, based upon the recommendation of the Public Works rep, announced his decision to destroy the tree because “trimming the tree will be an ongoing process, and once the house is built, there will be no access for the City to maintain the tree.”
Frank Snell and a growing number of citizens have since protested this decision—quietly and politely, showing cautious and diplomatic respect, etc. They have attended the monthly meetings of the city’s 7-member beautification advisory board, which advises the city concerning the landscaping of city properties, and the board asked an arborist to evaluate the stability of the tree should it suffer the amputation requested by the house builder, instead of the death penalty sought by Public Works.
- B. Schuetz, Parks and Beautification Manager for Public Works, has offered to replace this “invasive ficus,” whose trunk is 11 feet in diameter and which can grow up to 100 feet and fold a 4-foot building in its arms, with 6 plantings of nice, well-behaved native trees, 3 inches across at the base and 12 to 14 feet high.
The tree’s protectors are not consoled. They ask, what is the justification for using, as already authorized, $13,000 of tax payers’ money to destroy a tree owned by the taxpayers in a park also belonging to the taxpayers to help a private property owner improve his property?
- B. Schuetz counters this argument with the claim that the construction of a big house there will cause neighboring property values to go up, which means more tax revenue for the city.
The real issue, however, is maintenance.
The Arborist’s Report
The report, prepared by an ISA Certified Arborist for Forestry Resources Ecological, is in. It states that the tree is strong and healthy and that trimming the branches and roots that have trespassed upon the neighboring lot “cannot threaten the health of the tree.”
This happy news, accompanied by detailed recommendations for the care of this robust ficus, does not guarantee, however, that the city will not execute the tree with chain saws.
At the next beautification board meeting, soft-spoken people will again rise from their seats and walk to the podium to say, “We love our tree. It’s where we gather to watch the sunsets on the river. It’s where families gather on Sunday mornings, where children meet to play and form lifelong friendships.” They will say, “please,” and return quietly to their seats.
They await the decision of the jury.