Stand of mangroves mowed down
By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
SEMINOLE -- Bob Burguieres couldn't believe his eyes Saturday as he stood on the second green at the Seminole Lake Country Club.
Near a lot on the golf course where he plans to build his dream home, a front-end loader was plowing down mangroves.
"I was shocked," he said Thursday.
He quickly called his wife from his cell phone and told her do do something. Debbie Burguieres called the Sheriff's Office, then the city, but it was too late.
Hundreds of mangroves had been chopped to the ground along a coastal inlet on Long Bayou, and dirt had been dumped into the inlet.
Now county officials are investigating to see if anyone should be fined for what they say is a violation of environmental rules.
"They are cut way beyond anybody's interpretation of the law," said Dave Walker, an environmental program manager for Pinellas County. "These are cut way to the ground."
County officials said the mangroves were cut to ankle height in an area the length of a football field behind three homes in Long Bayou Estates, an upscale subdivision off Park Boulevard in Seminole.
One of the homeowners, Kirit Desai, said he and two neighbors paid $12,000 for workers to remove Brazilian pepper trees from the inlet. He said the swampy patch behind his house at 9404 Pebble Beach Court W was overgrown with exotic trees and was a haven to pesky raccoons and poisonous snakes. Attempts to get the city or county to clean up the area had failed, he said.
Desai said the original plan didn't include cutting the mangroves, but they agreed to trim them after his neighbor told him they could be cut to 4 feet.
"I wish I had known. I wouldn't have cut them," Desai said. "Our intention was to clean up that area. I'll be the first person to say I'm sorry about it."
The county discovered the damage Tuesday, the same day dozens of people packed the Pinellas County Commission's chambers to hear a proposal on loosening rules on cutting mangroves. Many in the audience wanted the county to adopt the state's existing mangrove ordinance, which allows the trees to be trimmed to 6 feet.
The county's rules on height vary but require county staffers who issue cutting permits to consider variables such as environmental impact. Current rules are hard for homeowners to understand and take too much work for county staffers, county officials say.
But no rules allow mangroves to be cut to ankle height or allow wetlands to be filled without a permit.
Seminole officials ordered workers Tuesday to stop and reported the incident to the county.
City officials said they were concerned about drainage. A retention system flows into the inlet, and if it was filled, it could cause flooding in the subdivision.
Will Davis, the county's director of environmental management, said his office was investigating whether the area was in a conservation area. If so, he said, the law prohibits mangrove trimming.
"The best thing to do is to check with our department before trimming," he said. "The law is somewhat complex."
The county has sent a letter to Desai asking him to contact the environmental department within 10 days.
Fines for illegally cutting mangroves can total thousands of dollars. Walker said the county rarely fines anyone $10,000, the maximum for illegal cutting. He said a couple of waterfront homeowners in Safety Harbor have been fined large amounts in the last couple of years, one $10,000.
And in 1996, a homeowner who lived near the Bayside Bridge agreed to pay more than $10,000 in fines after chopping mangroves and dredging a channel in Tampa Bay behind his house.
Mangroves are protected because they are a vital link in waterfront ecology. Their limbs provide homes for wading birds, and their falling leaves nourish organisms that become food for fish.
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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