Neighbors bemoan destruction of tree canopy in Siesta Key neighborhood, including illegal removal of five trees on county right of way

County Environmental Protection staff attempting to gain cooperation from owner of 5178 Oakmont Place to mitigate damage

This is a photo of the landward side of the property at 5178 Oakmont Place, which neighbors sent to the News Leader in early March. Bare spots mark the former locations of oaks on the property, neighbors note. Courtesy photo

On Dec. 23, 2019, a person named Mary Amos-King paid $1,125,000 for a 22,983-square-foot parcel on Oakmont Place, overlooking part of Siesta Key’s Grand Canal.

Subsequently, neighbors told The Sarasota News Leader, Amos-King proceeded to have all the canopy oak trees felled and removed from her approximately half-acre property, along with one that stood in Sarasota County right of way. That tree was next to the Siesta Key Master Pump Station, neighbors said.

“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.

In a Feb. 10 letter, county Environmental Specialist Darren 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.

“Based on staff assessment of the site,” he continued, the Environmental Protection Division staff members requested that she contact them by March 2. She had not done so by the deadline for this issue of the News Leader.

Asked about the fine for removal of a tree on county right of way without a permit, Howard Berna, manager of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division, 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 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.

Staff was preparing to issue Amos-King a Notice of Violation (NOV), Kim Francel, coordinator of the county’s Public Records Division, told the News Leader. “That will not happen before [the end of this week],” she added.

This is a Google Earth image of the property from 265 feet up, before the trees and mangroves were removed. Image from Google Earth
This is an image of the parcel, outlined in red, from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office website in March. Image courtesy Property Appraiser Bill Furst

The Notice of Violation is the first step in a process that ultimately could lead to tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

In response to News Leader questions, Berna of Environmental Permitting 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.”

In his Feb. 10 letter, Semones of the Environmental Protection Division pointed out that Amos-King did have the option of “planting back double” the diameter of each tree in inches at breast height, as indicated by Chapter 54 of the County Code.

Asked whether he could estimate the expense of such mitigation at 5178 Oakmont Place, Berna wrote in his March 9 email, “I don’t know how much it would cost to purchase and install any replacement trees, if it were determined appropriate in the Right-of-Way. The cost would be market value for installation of trees of a size of 3-inch caliper.”
Berna added, “The outcome here is likely a combination of paying for lost inches and planting, but the final outcome has not yet been determined as we work through this compliance matter.”

Asked about the removal of oaks on the Amos-King parcel itself, Berna explained in his email that she had the right to take that action without a permit, as long as no Grand Tree was destroyed. Regulations allow such tree removal on owner-occupied sites, he noted.

A Sarasota County fact sheet explains, “Grand Trees are determined by adding points calculated for the diameter, height and spread of a tree together.”

The News Leader was unable to reach Amos-King for comment.

Neighbors’ distress

In early March, residents of Oakmont Place notified the News Leader about the destruction of “all the canopy trees” on Amos-King’s property. Neighbors made many attempts to stop the process, a resident wrote, and one person even called the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to request assistance. (The neighbors did not want to be identified in this article for fear of reprisal, they told the News Leader.)

Asked if they had any idea how many trees Amos-King had removed from her own land, a spokesperson for the residents told the News Leader she was unsure, as “oaks are sprawling, so what could look like 2 trees might in fact be only one with a meandering large branch that swoops to the ground and then back up again.”

The resident added in that email, “What I do know is that the clear cutting that they did to the trees and the mangroves was undeniably large in scale.”

Francel of the Public Records Division had noted, in response to News Leader requests for information, that the owners of 5178 Oakmont Place also had trimmed mangroves on the Grand Canal without following county regulations. Francel added that no letter was sent to Amos-King about that issue, but Amos-King was told to allow the mangroves to grow back in, if she wished to avoid another Notice of Violation.

“Staff will be sending a letter in the near future [about the mangrove situation],” Francel wrote.

This is a photo of the house and pool, which faces the Grand Canal. It was part of a series of photos on the Michael Saunders & Co. website, used to market the house before its December 2019 sale. Image from Michael Saunders & Co.
This is another photo of the property used by Realtors working to sell it last year. Image from Realtor.com

The News Leader reviewed older photos of the 5178 Oakmont Place parcel via Google Earth and Google Street View, as well as a number of photos on Sarasota Realtor websites that advertised the 5178 Oakmont Place property before its sale to Amos-King. Both mapping systems and the Realtor images showed an abundance of trees around the house, as well as thick mangroves fronting the Grand Canal. Subsequently, an aerial photo of the property included on the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s website makes it clear that mangroves and trees have been removed.

Additionally, photos sent by the residents with their email show that the parcel has been cleared on the landward side.

This is an aerial photo from Google Maps. The Siesta Key Master Pump Station, on the site of the former Siesta Key Water Reclamation Facility, is adjacent to the 5178 Oakmont Place parcel.

The Sheriff’s Office response to the scene

The News Leader also contacted Kaitlyn Perez, community affairs director with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, about residents’ call for help as the tree removal was underway at 5178 Oakmont Place. Perez responded in a March 5 email that the complainant advised an officer that the person responsible for the felling of the trees “was a 55-year-old white female (last seen wearing burgundy clothing and driving a black Chevy Equinox),” based on comments a deputy had written after responding to the scene on Dec. 31, 2019.

No formal report was filed, Perez noted.

The woman “yelled at the complainant” that she was having the trees “trimmed on her own property,” according to the comments Deputy Michael Schermock wrote, which Perez provided the News Leader.

“The suspect was gone by the time the deputy arrived,” Perez added.

This aerial map shows the location of 5178 Oakmont Place, as denoted by the red balloon. Access to the property is from Commonwealth Drive, off Midnight Pass Road. Image from Google Maps

Dispatch received the call — characterized as a disturbance — at 5:03 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2019, the accompanying case card said.

Asked how officers typically handle situations over which they have no jurisdiction — as in this situation — Perez responded, “I can tell you Deputy Schermock (and most of Sgt. [Arik] Smith’s squad) is really well educated and good at communicating with residents about county versus law enforcement services. After speaking with Arik, 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.”

Smith is the leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on Siesta Key.

One other incident

Another photo taken by neighbors shows the fence that neighbors say the owners of the parcel erected right next to a wall, on county right of way, that borders the Siesta Key Master Pump Station site. Courtesy photo

The Oakmont Place residents who contacted the News Leader also pointed out that the owners of 5178 Oakmont Place had erected a fence that cut off neighbors’ right of way to the Grand Canal. “Their fence goes past the property line,” the residents’ email said. The fence was attached directly to wall bordering the county’s Siesta Key Master Pump Station property, the email added. “This was done despite [the owners’] acknowledgment that this was not their property and was indeed an established right of way, used by the county and the neighborhood,” the residents wrote of the owners of the 5178 Oakmont Place parcel.

“Little by little Siesta Key public access is being taken away from us,” the neighbors added in the email.

In response to News Leader questions about the fence, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant checked with the county’s Planning and Development Services Department staff. In a March 17 email, Grant wrote, “Originally, the fence was on county property blocking the water meter without a right of way use permit.”

During a site visit on March 16, she continued, staff found that the fence had been relocated off the right of way and therefore no longer was on county property or blocking the water meter.

“Staff was not able to determine who relocated the fence or when,” Grant added.

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