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Developers fined as trees fall

Published March 17, 2007


TARPON SPRINGS - In the first major crackdown under a new tree ordinance, city officials have fined two developers a total of nearly $340,000 for allegedly destroying 100 trees without permits.

The developers of Calista Cay, a gated townhome community on Meres Boulevard just west of Alt. U.S. 19, are facing $92,110 for allegedly slashing 45 trees without a permit.

A few miles to the west, at 727 Bayshore Drive, a city inspector responded to a resident's complaint. He said he discovered 55 trees had been razed illegally. In this case, property owner Daniel J. Comeau's tab for reports of violating city rules is $245,000.

The steep fines are the result of the city's newly enhanced tree ordinance, approved by the Board of Commissioners in July after lengthy and contentious debate.

The penalties charged by the city still fell short of those imposed by surrounding cities, according to city staff. But it requires owners who skirt the permitting process altogether to pay fines four times the cost of the permit and replacement fees.

Richard W. Hague, the city's engineering inspector, calculated the $245,500 penalty for the Bayshore property by adding the replacement cost for the 55 trees - $61,375 - and multiplying the sum by four.

The owner, Comeau of Dunedin, could not be reached for comment. City records show that Comeau told inspectors that the site constructor had cleared the trees without his authorization. Hague wrote that this "does not relieve you of responsibility." He cited Comeau for failing to get permits for tree removal and skipping several other steps required by the city's site and building code.

Meanwhile on Meres Boulevard, Frank Burkett, a partner with Wright Land Development, which is building Calista Cay, contends the city made a mistake and that his company will fight the penalties.

"It's really a big mess," Burkett said, calling the fines "ridiculous." The city dispatched an inspector at the request of City Commissioner Peter Dalacos, who noticed the treeless expanse.

"We have a multiple stage project and the site worker accidently cleared a part that wasn't permitted yet," Burkett said. "Ninety-eight percent was permitted already."

Burkett conceded a small slice of the six-acre site had yet to be permitted, but he said a city inspector had been on site and had seen the area marked to be razed and didn't catch the error.

Burkett said development will ultimately exceed landscaping code requirements: Construction will remove 140 trees but ultimately plant 148 .

However, the developer has been forced to cease all work on the project because of the city's citation.

The city will resume processing their permits only when the violation case is resolved. It is not clear when that will happen.

Whether the landowners will actually have to dole out the fines remains to be seen. Both cases were scheduled to go before the code enforcement board in early February. But the hearings were postponed until the city hires a legal adviser - independent of the city's regular law firm, Frazer, Hubbard, Brandt, Trask & Yacavone - for the code enforcement board.

Burkett says the process was not nearly as costly or complicated in Dunedin, where he recently completed another development.

"Tarpon Springs is a bit more eccentric," he said.

The new tree ordinance was the result of months of revisions and fine-tuning to find middle ground between the positions of City Commissioners Peter Nehr and Robin Saenger.

Nehr, who is now serving in the state Legislature, was hesitant to raise fines that would limit property owners' right to use their land. Nehr said the pricey requirement would simply add to the costs and drive up selling prices.

Driving the push to give the ordinance more teeth was Saenger, who argued that the city's tree canopy is a vital part of the community infrastructure. The sweeping live oaks are a distinctive part of the historic landscape that draws residents and tourists to Tarpon Springs, she said. Saenger also pointed out the direct economic benefits provided by the shade and root systems, which cut down costs on energy costs, erosion and flood mitigation.

[Last modified March 16, 2007, 21:20:23]

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