Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Letter: Is St. Augustine Tree City USA designation a farce?

Letter: Is St. Augustine Tree City USA designation a farce?

Gina Burrell
St. Augustine
Publication Date: 09/08/03

Editor: I just heard that at the city of St. Augustine's Code Enforcement and Appeals Board Meeting on Aug. 12, Jim Wilson, city attorney, persuaded the board to rescind its May 13 decision to fine and put a $15,000 lien for trees illegally destroyed without a permit, on the PUD property known as Old Sebastian LLC, located on DOT Road, which is off Lewis Speedway. Property is owned by Robert Graubard.

Photos of the destroyed trees are documented and can be seen at City Hall. Graubard's attorney, George McClure, and Wilson persuaded the Code Enforcement Board to remove the $15,000 lien because Graubard threatened to sue the city in Circuit Court.

I heard that ... it would probably cost the city about $8,000 to defend in court.

Well, if this is the reason for the city not to go to court, the city should cancel the contract they have for leasing Oxford shirts/Polo shirts, with the city logo, at a cost of $237 a week ($12,324 a year), which some employees at City Hall wear. I feel it is much more important to defend the trees, than to make employees, I have been told, feel a sense of pride in working for the city. (When I worked for the State of Florida for 23 years, we wore a badge with our name and photo for identification, which sufficed for us.)

Also, why is it going to cost the city $8,000 to defend in court, when we have a city attorney who we are paying a grand enough salary to have him represent us in court.

We did some research and found a 2002 Florida Attorney General's opinion and I quote: "A code enforcement board is not authorized to reduce a fine for noncompliance with an order of the board after that order has been recorded pursuant to section 162.09(3) FL statutes. Rather, upon being recorded, such an order becomes a lien that may only be compromised, satisfied or released by the local governing body."

The governing body is the City Commission, not the Code Enforcement Board or Jim Wilson. I feel that Wilson overstepped his authority in this case.

I think this decision sets a dangerous precedent. The new replacement tree plan is not a better feel for the city, since what was offered in the new plan, was a bunch of 5-foot sticks, instead of the code required, minimum of 10-foot high and 2-inch caliper tree. Now, all the developers have to do is take down all the trees they want illegally, be fined, threaten to take the city to court, and then the city attorney and the code enforcement board will let them off the hook.

I feel I am an advocate for the trees in the city, because they don't have a voice.

The city of St. Augustine was recently honored as recipient of "2003 Florida Tree City of the Year in recognition of its effort to plan, plant and protect Florida's urban trees."

If this decision is allowed to stand, then this award the city received is a farce. When this $15,000 fine/lien was imposed in May, I was very excited.

I thought, well, the city is finally administering strong penalties when trees are illegally destroyed.

Developers might think twice about taking down large trees illegally.

To me, this idea has now been shattered. I hope other city residents will be as outraged as I am in this matter, and call our mayor and city commissioners.

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