The windows in my favorite room of the house overlook our front yard and a long row of undeveloped lots. I was getting ready to read a few pages in there with a barrel of coffee before dawn the other morning when I heard strange clanking noises. A huge flatbed truck was depositing a portable toilet on the other side of the street. I was groggy. I may have been hallucinating. Then the recent life of that lot flashed before my eyes: the for-sale sign going up. The sign showing it was sold. A visit by surveyors. The obliteration of the lot could not be far behind. Portable toilets are the scouts of construction crews.
Days later another flatbed truck dropped the excavator. The excavator dropped all the trees in two days. A bulldozer flattened the lot and truckloads of fill. It was shocking how quickly the character of the street changed. Eleven years we’d loved those wooded lots, thinking they’d always be there the way someone with a view on a mountain or the ocean thinks they’ll always be there. At heart we knew it couldn’t last. Developers can move mountains.
And they have been moving them in Palm Coast at a pace not seen since before the Great Recession. In January alone the city issued 79 single-family construction permits, more by far than in any month in at least 10 years except for last October, when it issued 81. It issued 800 last year, or nearly as many as were issued in the six years between 2008 and 2013 combined. That’s the equivalent of nearly 9 million square feet of woods, gone. One of those permits was for the lot across the street. I tried buying the lot myself to keep it green, but the seller wanted a couple of thousand dollars more than I was ready to pay. Now I regret it..
I’m not begrudging SeaGate Homes, the builder putting up what will be somebody’s dreamhouse as much as our own was to us. Ours once obliterated its quarter-acre the exact same way, and was followed by the same parade of laborers we’re now seeing across the street every morning, each crew in turn like a different song to itself: “The floor-men are laying the floor, the tinners are tinning the roof, the masons are calling for mortar.” The Realtors are counting their chickens. There is beauty in construction, too, in the spaces being created, the hearths to come. I have no right to object. That doesn’t mean I can’t mourn what we’re losing.
We find our Walden ponds where we can even when there is no pond. Ours was across the street in that thick cosmos of green, its immense trees swaying worrisomely on wuthering days, its underbrush and canopy the marketplace of deer and turtles and snakes and a thousand birds, or the stage on muggy nights of a thousand frogs putting on their impressions of a thousand Kissingers. We don’t realize the breadth of our neighborhood symphonies until they’re gone. There are still several untouched lots next to the razed one, but now it’s as if the entire woodwind section was silenced.
Our street suddenly feels naked, ourselves and the row of houses on the other side of the woods both exposed to each other by the obliteration. My impulse is to cover my windows as I never would have before, trees being the most discreet neighbors. For 11 years I’d never let myself imagine that there were actual houses so near. I knew they were there, our neighborhood is no different than any other, our houses are all arranged like barracks on an army base but for those wooded lots, those intrusions of a disappearing nature. But as long as those trees were there I could imagine them as endless as our own corner of the Amazon. Of course the Amazon is getting leveled too, so it was a matter of time before our corner should be.
There’s an obvious difference between Palm Coast neighborhoods that have been fully leveled and developed, where trees are like fugitives and a weird, sun-baked stillness prevails, as in Vegas suburbs, and those like ours where a quarter of the lots are still untouched, where the wind whistles through a million pine needles, where there’s shade on every street and an ecosystem on every block. It’s nature’s living history. That’s what’s being lost, and with it a sense of place that’s more rooted than concrete. I can understand why they panic in the Hammock every time someone wants to build something. Replacement is not preservation, and preservation is not luxury or exclusion, though it’s often made to seem that way. It’s the last buffer between balance with our surroundings–and in no small way within ourselves–and outright subjugation of our environment to our more immediate, grasping impulses.
So it’s not the development I begrudge. It’s the the carpet-bombing that precedes it, that unsparing leveling of 11,000 square feet to make room for a 2,000 square foot house. It seems wasteful, more for the sake of builders’ convenience than dwellers’ necessity. It doesn’t have to be a choice between a kill zone and a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. But right now, in this place that calls itself Tree City year after year, our codes still favor carpet-bombing first, planting later. It seems to me those codes are out of date, out of step with our ecological needs, if not with the city’s own image of itself. I don’t think we have to destroy the woods to save them.
Let there be houses. But let’s not completely lose what attracted us here in the first place. Palm Coast’s canopy rules could use a little re-greening.
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