County staff proceeding this month with Code Enforcement case against Siesta Key homeowner whose illegal removal of trees on county right of way has been documented through survey

In her last communication with staff — in early July — homeowner reported serious illness but said she wanted to resolve issues by July 16

This is a 2019 Google Earth image of the property at 5178 Oakmont Place, taken from 265 feet up, before the trees were removed. Image from Google Earth

In early April, a Siesta Key homeowner cited for illegal removal in December 2019 of a number of trees on Sarasota County right of way asked staff to please let her know what steps to take “to get this matter resolved.”

Almost exactly four months later — with the homeowner having failed to comply with staff’s recommendations for a resolution — a county land development inspector said he had no choice but to proceed with opening a Code Enforcement case against the homeowner.

On Aug. 4, Environmental Specialist Darren Semones emailed Charlie Richison, the land development inspector, to ask whether Richison had heard or received recently anything from Mary Amos-King, identified on property records and county documents as the owner of the property at 5178 Oakmont Place. Semones added that he had driven by her parcel the previous day, “and it appears that more hedges have been planted down the parcel boundary that abuts the [county right of way] and are likely in the ROW [right of way].”

On Aug. 4, Semones also had emailed Amos-King, saying he wanted to follow up on the “requested planting plan pertaining to your … case, Notice of Violation Letter and mitigation plan. Staff would like a preliminary plan to review by Friday, Aug. 21st.”

County staff had issued the Notice of Violation this spring in regard to the illegal removal of trees, giving her time to pursue mitigation.

The parcel at 5178 Oakmont Place, outlined in red, is separated by county right of way from the site of the county’s Siesta Key Master Pump Station. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

Howard Berna, manager of the Environmental Permitting Division, told the News Leader in early March that an Affidavit of Violation — the next step in the Code Enforcement process — would be issued if Amos-King did not comply with county directives within a certain period of time. That affidavit would initiate a Code Enforcement hearing before a Special Magistrate, Berna added. That, in turn, could lead to a fine of $500 per day for repeated violations. The maximum fine a Special Magistrate can impose is $5,000, if the Special Magistrate finds the violation “to be irreparable or irreversible in nature,” Section 2-349 of the County Code says.

Since July 10, Amos-King has not corresponded with Semones, based on documents The Sarasota News Leader obtained through a public records request. In her last email, Amos-King continued to contend that she should not be liable to the county for the removal of the trees.

On July 16, Semones wrote her back, explaining that a property survey she had provided county staff showed that the work of the tree service company she hired in December 2019 “exceeded [Amos-King’s] parcel boundary … and impacted the county ROW and canopy road …”

In response to a News Leader request last week regarding the status of the situation, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant said she had learned from Environmental Protection Division staff that Amos-King apparently was away from Siesta Key for an extended period. As a result, staff had been stymied in wrapping up the case.

This is a photo of the property at 5178 Oakmont Place neighbors sent to the News Leader in early March. Courtesy photo

In a July 7 email, Amos-King informed Semones that she had been diagnosed recently with a serious illness and had lost her job. “So my bills will be skyrocketing and I have zero income,” she continued. Her treatment was to begin on July 16, she pointed out, and she would be “down and unavailable for six weeks give or take a few days … I would really like to get this resolved before July 16th if possible.”

On July 10 Semones wrote her back. “We are in active communication currently to resolve the issue and as long as we continue to see actions and progress to address the issue time frames can be adjusted.”

Yet, with Amos-King remaining out of communication, Richison, the land development inspector, notified Semones via email on the morning of Aug. 5: “I have had no contact from the owner at [5178 Oakmont Place]. I guess I will have to proceed with a code case.”

At the end of December 2019, neighbors of Amos-King told the News Leader they first notified the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office that trees were being taken down all over the 5178 Oakmont Place property, including canopy oaks that were favorites of many nearby residents.

County Property Appraiser’s Office records show Amos-King paid $1,125,000 for the 22,983-square-foot-parcel on Dec. 23, 2019.

In an April 15 email to Semones, Amos-King pointed out that the property was the first she had owned in Florida. She indicated unawareness of any violations involving county right of way, contending that she was relying on a tree service company to ensure that the actions were legal.

However, county staff members used routine aerial surveys to determine that seven cabbage palms had been removed from county right of way, plus one oak, as noted in county correspondence with Amos-King.

Initial efforts at resolution

This is a street view of 5178 Oakmont Place taken before the tree removal. The county right of way between the parcel and the Siesta Key Master Pump Station is at left. Image from Google Maps

In an April 23 letter, Semones provided Amos-King a chronology of the events documented by staff.

Amos-King responded, “At the time of all tree removal, it was unknown that the [county] ROW existed. It is my understanding that the tree company was basing [its] work off of the survey stakes in the lawn. It was acknowledged that the oak in the southeast corner was diseased and a picture taken for record.”

Semones requested in one email that she provide staff with a copy of the survey of the parcel that was completed prior to her purchase of the land. Then, he continued, staff could verify the accuracy of her claim that her boundaries differed from those indicated by county aerial imaging. “Staff also suggested a resurvey of the property by a surveying company,” he wrote, so staff could compare that to county records.

Amos-King replied that she had made multiple attempts to reach her surveyor, but she had been unsuccessful.

She also asked Semones if she could plant royal palms to replace the cabbage palms removed from the county right of way. Moreover, she wrote, “If the oak was diseased does it need to be replaced? Do you need me to send the picture of the oak again?”

Further, Amos-King wrote in that April 24 email, “As I look at the property owned by the county I [can’t] help but wonder why they would want more trees to maintain when there is no one taking any care of the trees the county currently has. … The palms on the county property have more dead brown leaves hanging than green. There are trees growing into power lines, trees falling into the [Grand Canal], there is poison oak everywhere and the drainage ditch is a haven for mosquitoes.”

The county right of way separates Amos-King’s property from the site of the Siesta Key Master Pump Station, which operated for many years as a sewage treatment plant.

Moreover, Amos-King told Semones that she did not believe the boundary lines on his county map were 100% accurate.

This is an aerial photo from Google Maps.

Finally, she wrote in that email, “I am trying my best to work with you, but I also believe in common sense and logic. I hired a licensed professional to survey the property and I hired a licensed professional to remove trees on the property. I can assure you that the last thing I would’ve done is knowingly [pay] money to have trees removed that are not on my property. Your staff was here, they saw the location of the survey stakes. There was no reason to think these trees were on county property.”

On May 1, Semones emailed Amos-King again, telling her, “To keep moving forward on the case, please provide a survey for EPD [Environmental Protection Division] staff to review … your parcel or have the property surveyed and staked for review by EPD staff. This will be a beginning step for EPD staff in attempting to resolve the ROW issue and tree and palm removal.”

Then, on June 16, Semones sent Amos-King a certified letter, thanking her for providing a copy of her survey. He added that staff visited her property and the affected right of way on May 27. “[B]ased on observations and measurements,” he continued, “our assessment is as follows:

  • “One live oak at [an estimated 20 inches of diameter at breast height [DBH] within the Oakmont Place ROW and 7 cabbage palms (4 cabbage palms from the unimproved ROW south of parcel and 3 cabbage palms from within the Oakmont Place ROW) were removed without authorization from the county ROW. The oak tree and palms removed were determined from aerial photos and based on measurements taken from the provided survey during our site inspection.
  • “The loss of the oak tree and palms along the Oakmont Place ROW has impacted the character of this County-designated Canopy Road.
  • “The 30-foot County ROW along the southern border of your parcel has been encroached upon with hedge plantings and the recent installation of a fence. Any work within a County ROW requires a ROW Use Permit. Projects that include removal of trees or planting of shrubs or trees within a county ROW would also require a Tree Permit be issued in addition to a ROW Use Permit.”

He advised Amos-King to perform the following actions by July 8:

  1. “Provide a mitigation plan that compensates for the unauthorized tree and palm removals, as requested in the Notice of Violation Letter. Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) inches removed were 76-inches (seven cabbage palms at 8-inches DBH and one 20-inch DBH live oak), adjusted for the 4 cabbage palms removed in the unimproved ROW to the south of parcel after aerial review and photos provided in an earlier email. Corrective action: Replant the [DBH] in inches removed of the live oak (20”). Sarasota County Code requirement is Florida Grade #1, 3-inch caliper at 6-inches off ground, or larger and 8 [feet] tall. Replant the 7 cabbage palms removed for a one-for-one replacement. A planting plan will be required to be submitted for review by EPD staff and guidance on location and species will be part of the review process.
  2. “Apply for an After-the-Fact Tree Permit and ROW Use Permit to retain the fence and hedge plantings located in the unimproved ROW along the southern border of your property.
  3. “Contact Charlie Richison … in Planning and Zoning to discuss ROW Use Permit requirements and the application process for the existing encroachments.”

Finally, Semones wrote, “Failure to take the necessary steps above by [July 8] will initiate the next steps in the code enforcement process that may result in a Special Magistrate hearing regarding the violation.”

Amos-King had emailed Semones late in the afternoon of June 16, asking him to let her know “where we stand at this point.” She added, “I have paid for a seawall, but they are waiting on permits. I also have … paid to build a detached garage, but they cannot proceed until we get everything resolved.”

Another round of communications

Sarasota County’s Tree Advisory Council encourages property owners not to trim brown leaves from cabbage palms, because such action is harmful to the trees. Image from Wikipedia

In a July 7 email to Semones, Amos-King complained that she had “had no success in completing the 3 actions requested in this short amount of time,” referring to his June 16 letter. “This only allowed me basically 5 business days, as most businesses were closed on Friday, July 3rd.”

For example, she wrote, she went to two different tree nurseries “to get assistance and both places basically laughed in my face for even considering buying cabbage palms. … Both stores tried to find an oak at 20 [inches] DBH and said that they do not exist. Both stores offered a smaller oak option, but neither had anything this size nor the ability to find anything that size from their suppliers. I also searched several nurseries online but had no luck. How do you suggest I proceed with this?”

Then she added, “Why is this on me and not on the locally licensed tree professional [who] had a copy of the property survey?

“How am I to know that the trees you want me to replace were actually here when I purchased the property? Between the previous owner and the neighbor who had his lawn chairs in my back yard with his homemade floating dock next to my dock, how would I know what they cut down or what modifications they made to the property?”

On July 10, Semones responded via email, explaining more details about the mitigation the county required. For example, he wrote that she could plant six or seven live oaks to equal the 20-inch DBH oak that had been removed.

Further, “Cabbage palms were the species removed and are required to be replanted as part of the mitigation,” he pointed out.

As for her statement regarding the tree service, Semones indicated that she could file a civil suit against the tree service company. He added, “There appeared to be a lack of due diligence on the [part of] the contractor hired to review site specific conditions before starting work.”