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His inquiry took him on goose chase

It took a man three weeks to find out if a developer had approval to cut down trees in his Land O'Lakes neighborhood.

By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published February 19, 2007


LAND O'LAKES - The snarl of a chainsaw followed by a loud crash sent Richard Konnen scrambling outside his Cabot Road home to take a look.

"I said, 'Somebody's cutting a tree down,' " Konnen, 62, recalled Friday.

Sure enough, work crews at the empty lot across the street were slicing down cypress trees on the edge of Padgett Lake.

When Konnen tried to ask if the crew had a permit, he was told by a worker to "get the hell out," he said.

So he went home and tried to rouse state and county regulators.

This is where he became even more frustrated. But Konnen, awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he got in the Vietnam War, wasn't about to give up.

It was 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 25 when Konnen decided to cross swords with his new neighbor, J. Glen McDonnell, who bought a 31/2-acre site there in April last year for $950,000.

Not that Konnen, a member of the neighborhood's civic association called the Carson Group, is bothered by the prospect of confrontation.

He's more irritated that it took him dozens of phone calls and three weeks to pin down a satisfactory response from environmental regulators.

"I'm not doing this to pick on this guy," he said. "I'm more concerned that nobody is coordinated with anyone else. I called Pasco County, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the state Department of Environmental Protection. ... By the time they catch up, they're too far behind."

McDonnell is a developer who in 1987 sat on a task force set up by the Hillsborough planning commission to determine Lutz's future development.

But in 1990, the DEP slapped him with a $4,000 fine for altering a lake, wetlands and a conservation area, among other environmental violations, at one of his projects in Lutz, called the Village On the Pond.

One of DEP's complaints about McDonnell then was that he could not be contacted. On Friday, McDonnell did not reply to calls from the Times. An elderly lady who answered the door at his house in Lutz's Cheval development said he would not be home that evening.

This time, McDonnell had better luck with DEP.

When Konnen called the department on Feb. 1, he was told to call back in a week.

Fran Earl, the DEP official who took Konnen's call, said she often tells people the best way to get an answer is to wait.

"Until the inspector has a chance to look at it and hope he has a couple minutes to put it in the system," she added.

Thirteen days after Konnen called, the department did get an inspector out to Land O'Lakes.

Its finding: two cypress trees were indeed cut, but that was okay because the stumps remained. The stumps help prevent erosion and regulate stormwater flow, said DEP spokesman Pamala Vazquez.

"We found no violations," Vazquez said. "The only thing was they cannot remove the roots."

Officials at Pasco's environmental land program said they had doubts about DEP's reasoning, since the trees contribute to air and water quality as much as the stumps.

"Sometimes, I've seen stumps re-sprout," said Don Robinson, a county biologist. "Most of the time, I've not. I don't understand why the DEP is okay with that."

Vazquez said the department took two weeks to respond because inspectors were busy and have a lot of inspections.

Konnen got nowhere with Swiftmud.

At the agency charged with regulating stormwater management, Konnen said he was also told to wait a week.

Swiftmud officials later said they told him it was a DEP issue and suggested he check with Pasco County, too.

"We were never going to respond," Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said. "We don't regulate single-family homes."

Konnen had better luck with Pasco. Doreen Lang, a code compliance official, got to the scene the same day Konnen called.

She put a stop to the tree-cutting and returned a week later with a $1,000 fine - $500 per tree - plus court costs for McDonnell.

On Tuesday, when Konnen called to ask Pasco's building inspections division if McDonnell might be building too close to the wetlands, Lang came back and stuck a "cease and desist" notice on McDonnell's site.

But the division chief reactivated McDonnell's permit Thursday.

"He was not building in the wetlands," said building inspector Tim Moore.

This is how it ends.

The developer with his $1-million lot got off with a $1,000 fine.

Konnen is still digesting his civics lesson in decentralized regulation. The two cypresses are gone. Konnen said they were chopped up shortly after they fell.

Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Useful numbers

If you want to cut down trees in your back yard, here are some numbers you should call:

Pasco County Code Compliance Division: (727) 847-8171

- Ask whether tree is exempt from permits

- If not exempt, obtain a tree removal permit, which costs $20 per parcel from Pasco Central Permitting

Pasco County Central Permitting: (727) 847-8126

Also call Florida Department of Environmental Protection (813) 632-7600 ext. 347, if trees are in a wetland area.