More than a year after illegal tree removal was documented in Siesta Key neighborhood, property owner resolves issues with county staff

New trees planted to replace those removed in county right of way on Oakmont Place

This photo shows new cabbage palms planted in the county right of way between the property at 5178 Oakmont Place and the Siesta Key Master Pump Station. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Almost exactly 14 months after neighbors complained about the illegal removal of trees in a Siesta Key resident’s yard and along the street in front of the property, the situation finally has been resolved with Sarasota County Environmental Permitting staff, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

On Feb. 26, in an email to Mary Amos-King, owner of the parcel at 5178 Oakmont Place, county Environmental Specialist Darren Semones wrote that he had stopped by to review the right of way replanting requirements the county had stipulated months earlier.

“The requirements have been met and the case has been closed,” Semones added.

“Great, thank you!” Amos-King responded.

She had emailed him on Feb. 23 to report, “The trees have been planted per your request.  What is the next step in getting this resolved?”

Earlier on Feb. 26, Semones sent a separate email to Howard Berna, manager of the Environmental Permitting Division: “I stopped by the Amos-King parcel/[right of way]. The trees and palms were planted to the approved planting plan we reviewed. I will close out the [Code Enforcement] case unless you have any thoughts.”

In early 2019, neighbors of Amos-King reported to the News Leader that they were appalled to see that she had removed all the canopy oaks from her approximately half-acre property, including one they said had stood in the county’s right of way. That tree was next to property that is home to the Siesta Key Master Pump Station.

“It was very frustrating to see very old oaks being cut down, especially when even the police had no say,” nearby residents told the News Leader in an email.

Residents had called the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to try to stop the destruction of the trees. However, Kaitlyn R. Perez, the community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, explained that by the time a deputy arrived, a woman whom neighbors believed to be Amos-King had left the scene.

Perez also explained, “After speaking with [Sgt. Arik Smith, the department’s Siesta substation leader], I can also specifically confirm Deputy Schermock more than likely redirected the complainant to contact Code Enforcement and/or the county’s permitting office and/or the environmental arm of the county. This would be standard procedure if arriving on the scene of an incident where the issue is non-criminal or non-civil in nature.”

In a Feb. 10, 2020 letter, Semones notified Amos-King that she also had removed four palms on county right of way.

“Staff and I met on site with you to discuss options of clarifying tree ownership and parcel boundaries and actions needed to present to county staff regarding [the tree removal],” Semones wrote.

Later, using routine aerial surveys, county staff determined that Amos-King actually had removed almost twice as many cabbage palms as staff initially believed, along with the solitary oak in the county right of way, as noted in public records the News Leader obtained.

“This is the first piece of property I have owned in the state of Florida,” Amos-King wrote Semones in an April 15, 2020 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.”

This is a county aerial of the 5178 Oakmont Place property in late spring of 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County
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. In this March 2020 image, the tree loss is visible. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

Amos-King was referring to the 22,983-square foot parcel at 1178 Oakmont Place; she bought for $1,125,000 on Dec. 23, 2019, Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records show.

At the time county staff initially investigated the removal of the trees, Berna of Environmental Permitting told the News Leader that the fine for such action, without a permit, is $200 per inch lost, referring to the size of the tree trunks. Berna also noted that the estimate for inches in Amos-King’s case was 68 to 72. Thus, the News Leaderestimated that Amos-King could have owed the county as much as $14,400 in penalties even before a Code Enforcement Special Magistrate could impose fines for the removal.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department — of which Environmental Permitting is a division — have explained during public meetings that staff works to try to achieve property owners’ compliance with county regulations. Pursuit of Code Enforcement cases is a last resort, they have indicated.

This is a view of the trees in the right of way next to 5178 Oakmont Place in a Google Maps aerial in March 2020. Image from Google Maps

Over the past year, Amos-King worked intermittently with Semones to try to resolve the situation, according to other documents the News Leader reviewed after receiving copies of them from the county’s Public Records staff.

On April 13, 2020, Semones emailed Amos-King to explain that, working on the basis that four cabbage palms had been destroyed, “planting eight with the code requirement of 8” Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) … would meet the [county’s] 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.”

However, in another email written just 10 days later, Semones referenced the new aerial images staff had reviewed, which showed that seven cabbage palms appeared to be missing from the right of way, along with the oak in the southeast corner of the property.

In an April 15, 2020 email to Semones, Amos-King blamed a professional surveyor and the tree company she had hired for the failure to comply with county permitting regulations. She also pointed out, “The oak that was removed was diseased and dying.”

A lag in the timeline

Amos-King was out of contact with county staff for several months during the process of trying to resolve the issues, county email records show.

On July 7, 2020, she informed Semones via email 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 pointed out. Her treatment was to begin on July 16, 2020, she continued, 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, 2020 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.”

Subsequent email records show that Semones attempted to contact Amos-King on Aug. 4, 2020 and then followed up on Sept. 11, 2020, in an effort to try to wrap up the case.

In his Sep 11, 2020 email, Semones wrote, “On Tuesday August 4th the email was sent regarding [the situation]:

I wanted to follow-up on the requested planting plan pertaining to your CP case 20-14, Notice of Violation Letter and mitigation plan. Staff would like a preliminary plan to review by Friday Aug. 21st.” 

Semones added, “Staff has not received any information regarding the requested planting plan for the 8/4/2020 email. Staff would like to see a preliminary planting plan by next Friday, 9/18/2020. If a plan is not received, [Environmental Permitting Division] staff will begin preparing the next step in the compliance process which will be an Affidavit of Violation (AOV). The AOV will begin the special magistrate process with the Office of the County Attorney (OCA).”

On Aug. 4, 2020, Semones also emailed Charlie Richison, a county land development inspector, asking whether Richison had heard from Amos-King regarding a right of way use permit for the tree plantings.

The next day, Richison responded, telling Semones he had had no contact with Amos-King.

Finally, in early October 2020, Semones exchanged emails with Victoria Engle, a paralegal working with attorney Caroleen Brej at what was then the Bentley and Bruning law firm in downtown Sarasota. (Since then, the name has been changed to Bentley Law.)

This is the tree planting plan submitted by Mary Amos-King’s attorney in September 2020. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Semones noted that the original planting plan that Amos-King had proposed to staff needed modifications. All of the cabbage palms would have to be planted in the county right of way, not on Amos-King’s property, he wrote. Additionally, in reference to a drawing showing royal palms on the plans, Semones pointed out that all of those trees would have to be cabbage palms.

On Nov. 4, 2020, Engel provided Semones a revised planting plan.

On Dec. 9, 2020, email records show that Amos-King submitted an application for a right of way use permit, so she could get the necessary staff approval to plant the new trees, “per the approved plan,” as staff acknowledged.

1 thought on “More than a year after illegal tree removal was documented in Siesta Key neighborhood, property owner resolves issues with county staff”

  1. What action was taken against the “tree company” that illegally cut down the trees? The tree companies are the County’s first line of defense against homeowners who are ignorant of, or do not abide by, the County’s Tree Ordinance. Secondly, has the legislature’s new law that hamstrings county tree regulations made it easier for homeowners to cut down trees that are protected by the County’s tree ordinance?

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