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Lessons Learned from the Hurricane Season

By Stephen Kelly, regional editor

Richard Conant, FASLA, president of Foster, Conant & Associates, Orlando, Fla. "Nature did one of the largest pruning jobs that we've seen in our life time."

While in Florida for several trade shows for LASN in December, I had the opportunity to visit with Richard Conant, president of Foster, Conant & Associates, at the firm's headquarters in Orlando, Fla. The landscape architecture firm, the first in the city, has been producing strong and creative landscape architecture design work throughout Florida and the southeast for 30 years.

We knew the hurricanes had impacted the work of landscape contractors and superintendents, but were curious to learn if they had affected the landscape architect.

From the air, you see tarps covering roof damage, but driving about Tampa and Orlando, I could not see any obvious evidence that four hurricanes had recently passed through, though just north of Orlando I saw snapped trees in the forest at Wekiva Springs State Park.

"The hurricanes did not affect us at all," Mr. Conant, began. "We're not in the rebuilding business, and the huge growth trend we were experiencing has continued. We didn't miss a beat.

"After each hurricane, Charlie being the worst, trees littered the roads. It took three (hurricanes) passes to thin the trees out. It took out that much canopy. The trees that were weak, fell over; the ones that stood, were pruned. Nature did one of the largest pruning jobs that we've seen in our life time. Taking care of trees, keeping them thinned out, will help during hurricanes.

"As designers and as a community as a whole, we saw how trees held up in the storms. Live oaks in most cases stayed up," Mr. Conant observed. Oak is the major canopy in the Orlando area. The laurels, however, did not survive well. Mr. Conant explained that laurel branches often develop pockets of decays that rot out much of the core and make them brittle.

"We don't have good horticultural practices," he notes. "There is a complacency about taking care of trees." He explained that trees are regularly pruned at nurseries, but once they are planted in the environment they are left to branch out, and gangly trees don't handle strong winds well, like the Drake elms that toppled on many a street.

Magnolias and hollies stood up well, as they, like the oak, have "full to the ground" canopies. Palms also did well, a testament to their single trunks and small canopies.

"Trees in groupings did better than singled-out trees," Mr. Conant pointed out. He explained how a local pine tree farm had thinned out his pine tree farm for timber, cutting down about every other tree. When the hurricane hit, every single one of the pines snapped.

Most city have codes requiring replacing trees, but Mr. Conant believes the green ordinances of many cities need rethinking. "Some codes require three canopy trees within a 100 feet and five understory trees. If you run that pattern down a 1,000 foot property, those trees will never have the opportunity to establish their full canopies, the kind of structure nature intended it to have. We're seeing a lot of that; down the road, we are building in potential damage."

When it comes to replacing Orlando's trees, what Mr. Conant sees is, for example, replanting of 40-50 trees per acre, but the parking lots and buildings are compressing the tree requirements into smaller open spaces. "It looks fine in the beginning, but later you will have too much canopy and you lose the ground plane" (i.e., create too much shade).

The big trees fell too. This large oak was uprooted during Hurricane Charley in Busch Gardens, just north of Tampa, Fla.

Business and Trends

The firm has just finished two residential development projects in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "The design team was treated as celebrities," he said with a grin. "Just taking our American ideas to Brazil, brings a whole different look and feel to the development."

The firm is in the third phase of a large streetscape in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando. Resort work is strong, including Six Flags in New Jersey, Universal Studios, Royal Pacific Hotel and Busch Gardens. And the firm is getting ready to kick off a 1,000 acre town planning project (mixed use) in Gulf Shore, Ala.

As for the local economy, Mr. Conant notes that condominiums are once again hot, a trend that died in the mid to late-seventies. Another notable trend is that British investors, with the favorable pound to dollar exchange rate, are buying up apartment complexes for short-term leasing, particularly to tourists. The idea is to attract people away from hotels to stay in apartment settings that include activities. The firm is doing an $8 million amenity package for one such complex that includes a huge pool, a "river," a wave machine and a miniature golf course.

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June 18, 2019, 8:45 am PDT

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