Wednesday, November 04, 2015

SAVE THE DUNE AND TREES: Lighthouse Park Dune, Trees, Property Line Debated at Planning and Zoning Board

In St. Augustine, Florida, a beautiful place with ancient trees, "We, the People" stand up for each other and for our beautiful stands of trees.

A Houston, Texas couple plans to retire to St. Augustine hired an architect and a builder to place a small house on a small lot at 7 Ponce de Leon Street in Lighthouse Park with an ancient dune and 100 year old trees.  But they found their instructions were not being followed: they found out at a Planning and Zoning Board (PZB) meeting November 3, 2015, when five of us testified against their builder's "hardship" application to destroy an ancient dune line and beautiful trees.

"I'm not used to that permit stuff," their builder said on his defective tree-killing application.  Obviously not: working in St. Johns County, there's no rigor to tree-killing approvals.  Rather, it's an orgy, fueled by money-hungry developers who own our County government.

But here in the City of St. Augustine, Our Nation's Oldest City, we stand up for our own: as PZB member Cathy Brown said, "it's a very special" place,, one where we treasure our tree canopy.  The proof: five of (three LHP neighbors and two others) waiting three hours and ten minutes before the 7 PDL tree-killing item came to be hard by the PZB.

I welcomed the Fillers to St. Augustine, and explained that we needed to be creative about preserving trees, just as Michaelangelo's Restaurant in Houston has a Texas Live Oak growing through the restaurant.  Witnesses testified about the wildlife habitat and shade provided by the Hackberries, Live Oaks and Southern Magnolias on the site, with one neighbor explaining his house was designed without air conditioning, and that unnecessary killing of trees would require him to install HVAC.

After sworn testimony from seven witnesses and thorough questions, the 7 PDL matter was postponed until the December 1, 2015 PZB meeting.

While applicant Fred Russell of Farwood Home and Design will be present, owners Rebecca and Stuart Filler of Houston, Texas will not be able to attend.  Rebeccca Filler, originally from Oregon, loves trees and instructed her architect not to destroy the dune or "get rid of any of the beautiful trees."  "I don't want to ruin the dune," Ms. Filler said.

The backup material was not posted on the City's website -- PZB and Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) materials never are posted on websites, only agendas and minutes.  City staff offered no principled reasons for this utter lack of transparency, which favors developers.  Justice Brandeis said, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," but in Planning and Zoning, there is little Florida Sunshine.

The home at 7 PDL could easily be built to protect the dune and the trees with an entrance at the rear, but the builder oddly claimed the City said this could not be done -- no comment from City Planning and Building Director  DAVID BIRCHIM, who neither confirmed nor denied the assertion.

Once we received the backup material, moments before the meeting began, it was apparent to the five opponents that the survey was inaccurate, there was no topographic map, there was no consistency between the map and the written narrative about the trees to be killed, and there were material false statements about "hardship" in the application.  City staff had no response to my earlier Open Records request (see below) and never addressed the subsidence issue.

Airily, haughtily, DAVID BIRCHIM barked that it was of no concern of the City if the survey were inaccurate, saying that was up to the Circuit Court.  Apparently, he thinks PZB can approve orders to kill trees you may not even own -- that dog won't hunt, DAVID BIRCHIM.

The owners of 7 PDL may sell the small lot to adjoining landowners, and buy elsewhere, or else their builder said he would "come back with accurate information" on the trees he would kill December 1.

Coming from Houston, where there is no zoning, the lot owners, the Fillers, soon to be our friends and neighbors,  plainly had the best of intentions, not wanting to disturb the dune or unnecessarily kill trees.  Their builder apparently misunderstood their preferences, as you can see from the tape, here:

There is no misunderstanding the avoidance and evasiveness of DAVID BIRCHIM and City staff:

-----Original Message-----
From: easlavin
To: recordsrequest ; dbirchim ; ilopez ; jregan ; lfountain
Sent: Thu, Oct 29, 2015 9:57 am
Subject: Re: Request No. 2015- 411: 7 Ponce de Leon, Lighthouse Point PZB packet re: destroying ancient dune and flooding neighbors

It's on 11/3 PZB agenda, right?  And who is sending these e-mails without signing their name(s)?

-----Original Message-----
From: St. Augustine Public Records <>
To: easlavin <>; David Birchim <>; Isabelle Lopez <>
Sent: Thu, Oct 29, 2015 8:27 am
Subject: RE: Request No. 2015- 411: 7 Ponce de Leon, Lighthouse Point PZB packet re: destroying ancient dune and flooding neighbors

After inquiry and search, the City of St. Augustine, through its public officials and employees, does not possess public records responsive to your request.
From: []
Sent: Monday, October 26, 2015 4:17 PM
To: David Birchim; Isabelle Lopez
Subject: Request No. 2015- 411: 7 Ponce de Leon, Lighthouse Point PZB packet re: destroying ancient dune and flooding neighbors
Please send.  Is there a vulnerability and risk assessment?  Thank you

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