Protecting the Trees of My Childhood, Sewall’s Point, St Lucie River/IndianRiver Lagoon

Aerial of Sewall's Point taken by Arthur Ruhnke in the 1950s.  Photo courtesy of "Sewall's Point, the History of a Peninsular Community on Florida's Treasure Coast," by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.
Aerial of Sewall’s Point taken by Arthur Ruhnke in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of “Sewall’s Point, the History of a Peninsular Community on Florida’s Treasure Coast,” by Sandra Henderson Thurlow. The peninsula is covered by a heavily treed hammock–although many areas were cleared for mansions, and pineapple fields earlier in the century.

Born in 1964, and growing up here in Stuart and Sewall’s Point, one thing I certainly had in my childhood was freedom. Freedom to roam. Freedom to explore. Freedom to get into trouble, or decide not to….Freedom to ride my bike. Freedom to climb trees. Freedom to read a book on an empty lot. Freedom to build forts. Freedom to catch butterflies, and to jump in the river with my friends with our clothes on if we wanted to….

Oaks of Mirimar, Sewall's Point. (JTL 2014)
Oaks of Mirimar, Sewall’s Point. (JTL 2014)

I moved to Sewall’s Point from St Lucie Estates in Stuart, in 1974. I was a 10-year-old child with my parents, and siblings. This area was still “small” not developed widely until the 1980s. Certainly, Sewall’s Point did not look as undeveloped as it did in the above photo from the 1950s—- before the “Bridges to Sea” were built, but it was certainly less developed than it is today. In fact, as a kid, I thought the entire pennisula  was “mine,  and we kids often played in the old, falling apart estates of an another era long past, most famously, the old “High Point Rod and Gun Club.”

The demolition of this building is what set my mother, Sandra Thurlow,  on her path to write her book on Sewall’s Point (Sewall’s Point, a History of a Peninsular Community on Florida’s Treasure Coast.)  In fact, it was the Sewall’s Point Commission in 1986, that “ordered the demolition,” as she states it, “of the lovely old home that stood on a bluff overlooking the St Lucie River…”

This event spurred Sandy Thurlow, “housewife,” on to become, as she calls herself, “the self-appointed history lady,” over time, writing four books on Sewall’s Point, Stuart, Jensen, and the House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island. She has educated and inspired thousands of people and won state awards. Now that I think about it, she became an “activist for history!”

Ironically,  as the old adage says, “history repeats itself,” and I now find myself writing and having become a “self-appointed river activist” for the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, spurred on also by its destruction.

There is always a silver-lining, isn’t there…? And when I was comparing the photographs “of old” with some below taken “today,” I noticed that one thing in Sewall’s Point still stands tall: many of its incredible trees. In fact, an arborist last year told me that Sewall’s Point is one of the only communities on Florida’s entire east coast, that still has much of its “native hammock” in tact.

Last night at a Sewall’s Point commission meeting in 2015, as a commissioner myself,  I lost my composure. I think really for the very first time, ever….And although I consider myself, yes, rather intense, I pride myself on NOT losing my composure.

In discussion of pursuing policy making it tougher for residents and businesses to “hat wrack” (severely cut) or remove a tree without a permit, in one second of time, “I lost it.”

I lost it when I thought I was going to lose my fight. A fight I have been working on in the Town of Sewall’s Point for six and a half years. In the end, some miracle occurred and the commission directed the town manager to “look into it,” if nothing else, for the hardwoods or especially large-caliber oaks, many hundreds of years old…

I am embarrassed by how I acted. I even apologized. I think it is because protecting this place is in my blood and because when I was a kid I thought it  was “mine….” and you know what? In way it is. It is all of ours.

hat wrack
Large oak cut back in 2014.
Large oaks cut back at Sewall’s Point business, 2012.
Hat wracked oak
Oak with internal large limbs severely cut, 2013.
One of two oak trees located on A1A in SP that once flowed with long limbs.  In 2012, an “A1A Sewall’s Point design” was created at the direction of the commission for all AIA trees “to be allowed to canopy” over AIA after under-grounding the  power lines. This large oak tree above, in a few hours, on a weekend, by one man and a chainsaw, hired  by an oblivious manger of an area business was “hat-wracked,” to avoid the power lines. Other oaks and pines, east of this area, also “planned” to canopy, were cut just 3 weeks before the town paid FPL hundreds of thousands of dollars to underground the power lines.  No fine was levied as the town was “seeking right of way” on the same property for AIA “improvements.”  Code called for thousands of dollars in fines….the business apologized and hired an attorney while FPL feigned ignorance…Many trees are hat-wracked each year. Most offenders go before the code enforcement board which can lessen fines spelled out in the code. In any case, the practice of severe pruning continues….


South Sewall's Point (date unknown)
Aerial, south Sewall’s Point (date unknown, maybe 1990s) Sewall’s Point is surrounded by the St Lucie on the west and the Indian River Lagoon on the east.
South Sewall's Point
South Sewall’s Point today-still many trees. (Photo 2015, JTL)

21 thoughts on “Protecting the Trees of My Childhood, Sewall’s Point, St Lucie River/IndianRiver Lagoon

  1. Jacqui this is a very important post. Lately I have been seeing more and more of this “hat-rack” style of cutting used on oak trees in our area. It is very damaging to the tree. Many of our street trees throughout Martin County are suffering this way. A typical example can be seen at the strip plaza across from the Stuart News where Mario’s Restaurant is located, where the oaks on the edge of US 1 are hat-racked over and over again. That is but one example – you can see it all over the county. I don’t understand why suddenly this type of cutting is taking place. In some cases this is called “lifting” when it involves cutting out lower branches, but such drastic cutting of limbs is harmful whether done underneath or on top of the tree. We should use whatever pressure it takes to stop it when possible. I applaud you for speaking up on behalf of the oak canopy on Sewall’s Point. If it were not for people speaking up about these issues, we surely would lose our entire tree canopy. Furthermore, I believe that Martin County as a whole needs a tree ordinance to protect the canopy we have left. Another example is the damaging “hurricane pruning” that is done to palms, which is harmful to the tree, particularly in the case of our native cabbage palms, which are “self cleaning”. Palms should not be hurricane cut, and oaks should not be hat-racked.

    1. Marjorie thanks so much for your ideas and comment. I fully agree. It does seem to be happening more and more, esp on us1. I think they don’t like trees blocking their signage—-then don’t plant oaks!

  2. Is there not a tree ordinance? I spent many, many years dealing with stringent ordinances in Metro Atlanta where at the height of the ‘boom’ acres of woods were lost weekly.

  3. Sewall’s Point does have a tree ordinance, but Martin County as a whole does not.

        1. I am remembering when I first moved here there was a large Jacaranda (nearly dead) in my front yard and I read the code – there is a bit about Landmark trees but no real enforceable, organized ordinance that I could find.

  4. Jacqui, don’t worry about “losing it” at the Commission Meeting. It may have been just what was needed for some to take notice. I’ve seen more and more hat racking lately, and I’ve wondered if there was an ordinance against it. When we lived in Homestead, FL, years ago, you would be fined for doing that to a tree. Keep up the good fight.

  5. Hat racking is fine for citrus in a grove. Not fine for trimming oaks and other large canopied trees in our communities.

  6. Jacqui, Don’t ever apologize for being the person you are – it’s who you are. Your passion and commitment is to be celebrated and acknowledged, never judged. The driving force that’s guiding you comes from a great strength and determination for all things living. If you ever need acknowledgement of this, just look into the eyes of your children; the River KIdz and you’ll see it reflected back to you.

  7. Yes, we need to become more proactive regarding the trimming of our oaks. Some beautiful, draping limbs of the oaks in Zeus Park in Hobe Sound were deemed unsafe because children played in the park. They were not diseased, and these wonderful limbs allowed even small children and their parents to sit in a tree to read while just inches from the ground, creating indelible memories, I’m sure. A county crew “trimmed” them, hauling off memories deprived of countless future children, right along with what was now nothing more than just firewood.

  8. Thanks for fighting for the trees…the river..the birds…the wildlife..and all else that is so important …

  9. Jackie, I just got a call from a neighbor. There was an incident in Miramar Road Thurs 8-20-2O when a tall truck ignored the no trucks sign and got caught under a tree ripping the truck roof. From the report, our police chief plans to be at Tues meeting to discuss the need to remove-cut back the trees. She was over heard to call some of us trouble makers as we call the officers to report problems on the street. We need all the help we can get to protect the canopy. Hope to see you there.

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