Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Board drops $15,000 fine for tree violation

Board drops $15,000 fine for tree violation

Senior Writer
Publication Date: 08/20/03

A $15,000 fine imposed against a developer for removing trees without a permit has been reversed by the St. Augustine Code Enforcement, Adjustments and Appeals Board.

The board first imposed the fine in May against developer Robert Graubard, who is now in the engineering and permitting stages of what will be the 34.2-acre, 85-home Old Sebastian Pointe subdivision off D.O.T. Road and Lewis Speedway.

The city's initial complaint said the site contractor, Bentley Development of Farmington, Conn., had cut down three oak trees with trunks larger than 30 inches in diameter, plus 29 loblolly and slash pines.

All the trees were removed without a permit during the clearing of a storm water pond. The contractor admitted to the Code Enforcement Board that he didn't know a permit was required. But as the owner, Graubard is responsible for what is done on his property.

He was ordered to replace those trees by planting 234 nursery grown live oak and Southern red cedars: 48 in the recreation area, 16 around the pond and two on each of the 85 lots.

Then, on a motion by board Vice Chair Vernon Davis, Graubard was also fined $15,000 -- $5,000 for each of three trees larger than 30 inches in diameter.

The board split 4 to 2 on this issue, with members John Valdes and David Chatterton opposing the fine.

On Aug. 12, Graubard and his attorney, George McClure, brought the case back to the board for mediation.

Board member Jackie Leslie said the board decided to accept a better tree replacement plan than go to court.

"I was happy with the mediation," she said. "The code is about keeping trees. The money is not as good as the trees."

The new plan offered 267 trees, all at least 5 feet tall and 1 inch thick. Two trees are still required for each lot, but 73 will be in the recreation area and 24 around the pond.

The new total is 33 more than the previous one. The board accepted that offer and removed the fine.

Chatterton said that if the board did not accept the new plan, a lawsuit would cost the taxpayers more money.

"Also, the fine would be rescinded and we might not get a guarantee to get that many trees," he said. "I was more interested in getting trees back into the ground. It was very acceptable."

He had never seen a fine comparable to that, he said.

"We're not in the business to collect fines," Chatterton said. "We just use fines to get these folks into compliance."

Graubard said Tuesday that he didn't speak at the hearing and left all the talking to McClure.

"The board made a just decision," he said.

But Vice Chairman Davis was unhappy with rescinding the fine.

"I felt that if (Graubard) had an objection, he could take it to circuit court," Davis said. "I don't believe that taking out trees and then asking for forgiveness is the proper way to do things. He's not a novice at construction projects. And I don't buy the story that the contractor didn't know he needed a permit."

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