Property owner blames tree service company but tells county staff she wants to get issues resolved, including required mitigation
A Siesta Key homeowner whom Sarasota County staff has cited for illegally removing trees on county right of way has disputed one of the allegations and has blamed a tree removal company for the problems in general, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
Using routine aerial surveys, county staff has determined that Mary Amos-King of 5178 Oakmont Place removed almost twice as many cabbage palms as staff initially believed, along with one oak staff earlier specified, the News Leader read in documents it received through a public records request.
“This is the first piece of property I have owned in the state of Florida,” Amos-King wrote a county Environmental Protection Division staff member in an April 15 email. “My entire life in Indiana I have never run into an issue like this. Typically when you own real estate, you have the American dream and you can do what you would like to do with your land,” Amos-King continued. “You can plant the flowers and trees that you wish to plant. I have never been in a situation where a county dictates the landscaping. I honestly have never heard of such a thing, other than a homeowners association or a zoning ordinance. One of the perks of this property is that there is no homeowners association to dictate what property owners can and cannot do.”
Amos-King was referring to the 22,983-square foot parcel at 1178 Oakmont Place that she bought for $1,125,000 on Dec. 23, 2019.
A county chronology of the events regarding the removal of the trees, which county Environmental Specialist Darren Semones provided Amos-King on April 23, says Environmental Protection staff was called to Amos-King’s property on Dec. 31, 2019.
That followed complaints by neighbors, who told the News Leader they first alerted the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office that Amos-King was having all the trees removed from the landward side of the parcel, which fronts on the Grand Canal.
On Dec. 31, 2019, the chronology said, Environmental Protection staff told Amos-King not to grind any of the stumps of trees removed in the county right of way and canopy road area “until further verification.”
By the time staff returned the next week, the chronology continued, the stump grinding had occurred, “and all stumps of trees/palms removed were gone.” As a result, the document pointed out, the staff members provided Amos-King a list of materials she needed to submit to the county. That included a new survey of the parcel, which would be her responsibility; and a copy of the survey that was completed in conjunction with her purchase of the site in December 2019. Staff would compare those documents, the chronology noted.
Staff also advised her to take “no further action in rear of home along canal.”
Kim Francel, coordinator of the county’s Public Records Division, told the News Leaderin March that mangroves fronting the canal had been trimmed in violation of county regulations. Environmental Protection staff told Amos-King to allow those to grow back in, if she wished to avoid a Code Enforcement Notice of Violation, Francel added.
Staff mailed a courtesy letter to Amos-King on Feb. 10, the chronology continued, but she “never responded with information requested in the courtesy letter.”
Thus, staff issued a Notice of Violation in regard to the removal of trees in the county right of way, giving her time to respond to staff efforts to rectify the situation.
In response to News Leader questions, Howard Berna, manager of the Environmental Permitting Division, explained in a March 9 email that the filing of the Notice of Violation would “give the owner some time to address the issues …”
If no action were taken within the timeframe allowed, he pointed out, an “Affidavit of Violation would be issued,” which would initiate a Code Enforcement hearing before a Special Magistrate.
County regulations allow for a fine of $250 per day for an initial violation, but the amount goes up to $500 per day for repeated violations. Moreover, Section 2-349 of the County Code says, “[I]f a Special Magistrate finds the violation to be irreparable or irreversible in nature, the Special Magistrate may impose a fine not to exceed $5,000.00 per violation.”
Asked about the fine for removal of a tree on county right of way without a permit, Berna told the News Leader that it is $200 per inch lost. In this case, he noted, the total number of inches was estimated at 68 to 72. The News Leader calculated in March that Amos-King could owe the county as much as $14,400 in penalties even before a Special Magistrate could impose fines as a result of a county Code Enforcement process.
County staff finally heard from Amos-King in early April, according to documents the Public Records Division provided the News Leader last week.
On April 13, Amos-King emailed Environmental Specialist Semones, writing that she had left him a voicemail in regard to his Feb. 10 letter. “I thought that email would be a better means of communication,” she added. “Please let me know what we need to do to get this matter resolved.”
A mitigation plan
In an April 13 response to Amos-King, Semones wrote, “[A] planting plan would need to be submitted for review regarding replanting the Right-of-Way (ROW) … [If] the area does not allow for the total inches to be replanted, a combination of planting the approved species and paying the remaining inches ($200 per inch) owed into the Reforestation Fund would meet the terms of the mitigation.”
“[G]iven the known species that were impacted” in that area of Siesta Key,” Semones continued, “the county would like to see replanting of the same species that were removed.”
Still working on the basis that four cabbage palms had been destroyed, Semones told her that “planting eight with the code requirement of 8” Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) … would meet the mitigation criteria. The oak removed would then need to be mitigated with 40” of oaks planted or an agreed upon substitute or substitutes. These trees will need to be 3” caliper at 6” off the ground, [Florida] Grade #1 and [8 feet] tall.”
A higher count of lost trees
On April 23, when Semones sent the chronology to Amos-King, he also attached “aerial images [showing] the parcel boundaries overlaid on timed images the county collects every year,” which are available via open source through the county website. “Based on the review,” he continued, “more palms were removed and the county [right of way] ROW was encroached upon further by your activities on your parcel in December.”
Semones wrote that seven cabbage palms appeared to be missing from the right of way, along with the oak in the southeast corner of the property.
“The mitigation for the ROW violation will be reassessed,” based on the review of the aerial images, Semones continued. “At this time we have determined that corrective actions to replace the loss of 7 cabbage palms and one 20-inch oak from the ROW is needed. Any further information you can provide regarding parcel boundaries and ownership of ROW trees and palms removed should be collected and sent for review by staff. We can then provide clearer guidance on what corrective action options you may have.”
In her April 15 email to Semones, Amos-King wrote, “I paid for a professional survey to be completed prior to closing on the property. The tree company and I followed the stakes placed in the ground by the surveyor. Neither the tree company nor myself would have had any reason to suspect that Sarasota county owned the first 15 feet of the property from the street.”
Further, she stressed, “I hired a professional tree service with many years of experience to take care of tree work. I believe the professional, licensed tree company would know the tree ordinances in Sarasota [C]ounty.”
Amos-King added, “I am not exactly sure where you are coming up with four cabbage palms. I just closed on this property late December 2019 and I do not recall any cabbage palms in the ROW. I am not saying that I don’t believe you, but I do not recall any cabbage palms and when I spoke with the tree company they did not recall any cabbage palms either.”
She continued, “The oak that was removed was diseased and dying.”
“I do intend on planting several trees and plants on the property,” Amos-King added. “I would like to plant a hedge going from the street to the canal down both sides of the property. I would also like to plant several large royal palms on the property. I also intend on planting several flowerbeds and possibly a couple of citrus trees.”
Further, she wrote, “I have actually reached out to Sarasota County with regards to the ditch next to our property. I have offered to pay to have the open ditch converted to piped drainage. With my offer I would like to extend the seawall on my property to the seawall on the [county’s] property, with the drain coming out of the end of the [seawall]. I would like to have this piped drainage covered with sod and I will agree to maintain the lawn.”
Amos-King continued, “Someone from your office requested that I plant sod in the ROW … I planted the sod as requested in early January. I have been watering, fertilizing, mowing, and maintaining this property for the county. It was my understanding that planting this sod resolved any issues regarding any possible violations. As you will recall, we had no knowledge at the time of any ROW.”
Then, a day later, she sent another email to Semones. “I would like to get this resolved sooner than later,” she told him.