Jan 13, 2017 6:03:00 AM / by Claude Kershner IV

The owner of a home in the Florida Keys called us because he wanted to install a driveway. The request seems simple enough—but because the project would mean removing trees that are part of a hardwood hammock, there was much more involved.

The fact is, there is a lot of protected land in the Florida Keys, including native hammock and other conservation easements. Tropical hardwood hammocks are canopy forests with a diverse range of native species. Hammocks are located throughout southern Florida, and in concentrated areas of Monroe County. Native hammocks are carefully protected land because of their importance in sustaining wildlife.

The Keys hammock area is attractive to some homeowners because of its natural beauty. However, the Florida Keys hammock has been threatened by development, so there are regulations on how one can alter the land. It’s important to know before you buy a property on the Florida Keys that the hammock is protected land.

Going back to the driveway example, the property owner did eventually get approval to remove some vegetation to build. But first, a biologist had to conduct a vegetative survey at the owner’s expense. Then, rat, snake and snail surveys were performed to determine how removing some of the hardwood hammock from the property would impact this wildlife. The whole process took about nine months, and in the end the homeowner had to pay about a $10,000 mitigation fee for removing the trees—and that’s before the driveway project could begin.

If you purchase a home or build in the Florida Keys hammock, here’s what you need to know about landscape restrictions and how owning land in the hammock or on a conservation easement could impact your ability to change the landscape. 

Questions Property Owners and Realtors Ask About the Keys Hammock

As a landscape management and pool provider working on a range of estates and commercial properties throughout Monroe County, we often field questions from people who want to know what they can do with their land if they purchase a home in the Keys hammock. Realtors want to know the restrictions so they can educate buyers.

Common questions include:

  • What improvements can I make to my property if land is within the hammock?
  • What vegetation can I remove from my Florida Keys property? What vegetation must stay according to regulations?
  • How long will it take to get approval to build on my Keys hammock property?
  • What can happen if a regulation was overlooked when building on my hammock property?
  • Is it worth the time and expense of going through the process to remove hardwood hammock on your property?
  • What are some of native hammock plants I can have on my Keys property?

Let’s answer those questions here.

#1 Living in the Keys Hammock: What Plants Can I Remove (if Any)?

Navigating regulations when you live on a conservation easement like the hammock must happen on a case-by-case basis. What we do at Reef Tropical is facilitate a process of investigating regulations on your particular property. We work closely with county and state biologists who study your land and provide detailed reports.

It is necessary to consult local and state agencies and work with them through the process.

If your land is on a conservation easement, you cannot remove any plants from the property. You are not permitted to disturb that protected area in any way, including leaf cleanup. The purpose is to maintain nature’s cycle and preserve an important ecosystem. (So, don’t get frustrated—there is good reason for the easement.)

However, if your land includes some of the hardwood hammock, there are steps you can take to potentially remove vegetation in order to make other landscape enhancements. First, a biologist must conduct a vegetative survey. Other surveys might be required to determine the impact on wildlife. Generally speaking, you are permitted to remove plants that are less than 3 inches in diameter. (There are some exceptions to this.)

Upon approval by state and local agencies, you may remove designated vegetation. You may be required to pay a mitigation fee and/or to replace vegetation somewhere else on your property based on the square footage of land you disturb.

For example, you may be required to put in one 8-foot plant for every 10 feet of disturbed land. So, if 500 square feet of vegetation is removed, that would require installing 50 new specific plants. (Read on to question 4 for more details.) 

#2 How Long Will It Take to Get Approval to Build on My Keys Hammock Property?

State and local agencies are involved whenever dealing with a hardwood hammock. In our driveway example, the biology report alone took one year. The biologist had to go on to the property to observe various conditions, such as following a rainstorm. Notes were taken concerning wildlife habitat. You see, protecting the hammock goes deeper than removing or keeping plants; it’s about conserving natural species of all kinds. However, most surveys take four to eight weeks.

#3 What If a Regulation Was Overlooked on a Property within the Hammock?

Say a contractor builds a home and does not perform due diligence. Native hammock plant material is removed without proper surveys and approvals. The mitigation fee is not paid, and proper vegetation is not replaced. As a result, severe fines and penalties are brought upon the homeowner.

The county may go a step further and require the owner to replant all areas that were damaged with approved native trees and plants. This occurs at the homeowner’s expense and can easily cost up to $50,000 or more.

Once that replanting effort is completed, local and state agency representatives inspect the property to be sure the landscaping was properly installed. Nothing is final until all species that were removed/endangered are addressed.

In one case, we are working with a homeowner whose permit will remain active for three years with periodic inspections to ensure the owner does not remove any of the planted vegetation.

As we said, altering the landscape in the Florida Keys hammock requires adhering to regulations. It’s critical to partner with a knowledgeable landscape professional who can help you conduct research before you disturb the property in any way. And, realtors should consider consulting with a landscape professional on behalf of their clients so they can help them understand their obligations as potential owners of a hammock property in South Florida.

#4 What are Some of Native Hammock Plants I Can Have on My Keys Property?

The exact plants that are approved to install on your native hammock property will depend on results from a biology report conducted by state and/or local authorities. Those include canopy trees that grow tall, such as wild tamarind or gumbo limbo tree. There are understory species such as Pigeon plum, Jamaican caper and Marlberry. These require more shade because they grow underneath the canopy. Next, there are lower-growing shrubs such as wild coffee and fire bush, strongbark, cinnamon bark, silver buttonwood and cocoa plum.

landscape restrictions south florida

#5 Is It Worth the Time and Expense to Go Through The Process of Removing Hardwood Hammock on Your Property?

You might be wondering, is the expense worth it? In some cases, the answer is a definite yes. If removing hardwood hammock reveals an ocean view, that could increase the property value by, say, $100,000 (or more). So investing $50,000 in replanting is a good investment considering the value you’ll achieve once the project is completed.

On the other hand, if the outcome of clearing hardwood hammock is to clear space for a parking space by your garage, you might reconsider depending on the mitigation expenses and value it will bring to your property. It’s always a good idea to weight the time, cost and benefit before beginning the process.

Find Out Keys Hammock Restrictions Before You Plan a Landscape

You know what they say about an ounce of prevention. Before you touch the landscape or even begin planning to plant or build on your Keys hammock property, consult with a professional landscape provider who can connect you with appropriate state and local agencies.

At Reef Tropical, we work closely with state biologists to navigate restrictions on conservation easements and protected properties. Based on their reports and requirements, we design landscape solutions that preserve the integrity of the native hammock and, importantly, pass detailed inspections. You need a committed, patient partner like Reef Tropical to walk you through the process from beginning to end.  

Not sure if your property contains a conservation easement? As a property owner of hammock land, you are also a steward of the native vegetation. So, let’s sit down and get the answers before you invest time dreaming about the landscape so we can understand your rights. Contact us anytime at 305.367.2005, or fill out this simple contact form and we’ll get in touch with you.

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Topics: Landscape Maintenance, Landscaping, Tree and Shrub Care, Landscape Design

Claude Kershner IV

Written by Claude Kershner IV

President Reef Tropical • Pool & Landscape

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