Friday, April 15, 2022

Trinity Episcpal Church Fined $5000 For Illegal Tree-Killing

Our Nation's Oldest City, St. Augustine, Florida, is a "Tree City USA," a designation meant to be taken seriously, with legal prohibitions on tree-killing without permits. 

St. Augustine's Code Enforcement Adjustments and Appeals Board (CEAAB), acting on a citizen complaint, hearing evidence, voted to fine Trinity Episcopal Church $5000 for its illegal killing of two trees without permits, ordering the trees be replaced.  

Cars were driving over the tree roots in Trinity Episcopal's unimproved, unapproved parking lot, apparently defective by design, killing the two trees.  (See photos).

Trinity Episcopal wants to expand  its Artillery Lane parking lot, but Trinity never got proper permits. In January, Trinity Episcopal cut down the two trees without permits. This broke the law. 

Some seven (7) citizens testified in support of a fine against Trinity Episcopal Church, including Mr. Irvin Rubin, Captain Lee Geanuleas, U.S.N. (Ret.), Lauren Giber, Mattie Harms, Charles Papps, Ms. B.J. Kalaidi, and me (Ed Slavin). 

Thanks to Mr. Rubin for filing the initial complaint and testifying,  Thanks to St. Augustine City Code Enforcement Manager (former Police Chief) Barry Fox for prosecuting the case. 

The evidence was irrefragable. 

Trinity Episcopal Church never followed 2021 advice and instructions from the City's Friday Review meeting on how it should proceed to make its parking lot legally compliant, never appearing before our Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) and Planning and Zoning Board (PZB). 

Trinity Church's current Rector, Fr. Matthew Marino, and his arborist Edward Conlon, gave utterly unconvincing testimony, claiming an "emergency" entitled them to kill two trees without permits. Rector Marino also pointed out that Fridays are busy days for him because he is writing his sermon on those days. 

Trinity Episcopal Churches arborist Edward Conlon sent one (1) early-morning e-mail to a City official and then sua sponte illegally ordered the trees be cut down without waiting for a response or talking to any City officials.  

No lawyer appeared for Trinity Episcopal Church.  It showed.

The Trinity Episcopal pastor's and arborist's testimony rang hollow, not unlike the excuses emitted by a spoiled child caught with their hand in a cookie jar.  Their affect was one of entitlement to unequal justice -- like so many dull developers and their cynical corporate lawyers, but without the credentials or expensive wardrobes.

It appeared that Trinity Episcopal and its arborist, Edward Conlon, somehow expected our Code Enforcement Board to believe that Florida law now allows an arborist to declare a life safety hazard and declare a protected tree dangerous and kill it without reference to local tree ordinances. 

Wrong. That law only applies to residential properties.  Trinity Episcopal is not a residential property, it is commercial, City staff testified.  Conlon said he was afraid the trees would fall on a nearby residence, but that does not somehow convert Trinity Episcopal into a residential property.

Trinity Episcopal Church wanted to expand its parking to make more money from a profit-making business.  

Jesus drove the money-changers out of the Temple.  But it appears that in 2022, those misguided souls at Trinity Episcopal are all about making money with even more parking on an unapproved, unimproved parking lot.  Parking fees are collected in cash, $20 to $25. That income is taxable under IRS rules. 

The hired hands of Trinity's unjust stewards later removed the swale and drainage catch basin, a number of other trees and vegetation -- also without permits, several matters still pending before City staff and not on the April 12 agenda.

When the original Milltop Tavern was in actual danger of falling down, St. Augustine City Manager John Patrick Regan, P.E., inspected and authorized the immediate demolition.  In contrast, I testified, Trinity Episcopal's arbitrary, capricious arborist never attempted to contact the City Manager and obtain a demolition permit.  

I also stated that if a Church was allowed to break the law, developers would benefit from such regulatory desuetude.

The $5000 fine was approved 3-1.  

Tom Day dissented, preferring a $10,000 fine, the maximum. 

In 2014, the then HARB Chair, former Mayor CLAUDE LEONARD WEEKS, JR. destroyed a 211-year old Spanish colonial building, working without permits, fined only $3700, out of a possible $10,500.  The meeting was not televised. 

Today's Code Enforcement Board is improving, but still not televised!

Wonder why?

When lawbreaking organizations have their code violations administratively adjudicated before a citizen board at 3 pm on a Monday afternoon without any video, the public is denied the opportunity to see their government at work. That situation stinks on ice.

I am proud of the City of St. Augustine's concerned citizens and government for standing up to Trinity Episcopal's unjust stewards of our environment. 

In his encyclical, Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home), Pope Francis condemned the willful, wanton, destruction of our planet. Pope Francis wrote that "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth." 

That's what fast-buck artists are doing to St. Augustine and St. Johns County, and we've had enough of it.  

Wildlife, trees, wetlands, history and nature are being destroyed, faster than a speeding dump truck.

Every time a forest is cut down for private profit, a little bit of our soul as a community dies.  

Developers are "worse than any carpetbagger," as former County Commission Chair Ben Rich, Sr., said it best.

As H.L. Mencken said, some Americans have "a libido for the ugly." Sociologist and criminologist Edward Alvord Ross wrote in 1907 about "criminaloid" personalities: "Nature has not foredoomed them to evil by a double dose of lust, cruelty, malice, greed or jealousy. They are not degenerates tormented by monstrous cravings. They want nothing more than we all want - money, power, consideration - in a word, success; but they are in a hurry and they are not particular as to the means." 

Never again must we let them ruin our history and nature in St. Augustine and St. Johns County, Florida.

Thankfully, St. Augustine has alert City staff and Board members now, thanks to Mayor Nancy Shaver, who ended the days of developer-directed, rubber-stamp boards. 

HARB, PZB and CEEAB will hopefully never often again be persuaded by anyone's flummery, dupery and nincompoopery, like that emitted by ex-Mayor LEN WEEKS, or Trinity Episcopal's misguided Rector, Fr. Matthew Marino, and his arrogant, uninformed arborist, Edward Conlon.  

Trinity Episcopal's intelligent, ethical and involved parishioners -- who includeurrent and former state and federal judges -- would be shocked to hear the testimony from their church about their orgy of tree-killing. 

If only there were video or a transcript to share with U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Leight Williams Berger, or other Trinity parishioners!

Judge Wendy Leigh Williams Berger, 53, was a young Dull Republican apparatchik and a young judicial appointee of two rebarbative Florida Governors (JOHN EDWARD BUSH and RICHARD LYNN SCOTT),  and then of President DONALD JOHN TRUMP.

Query: how does U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Leigh Williams Berger feel about her own church home being a lawbreaker on St. Augustine's tree-killing ordinance, fined $5000?  

Will Judge Wendy Leigh Williams Berger now speak out about it, so this illegal abortion of trees in our Nation's Oldest City's legally-protected trees never happens again?

UPDATE April 14, 2022: Judge Berger has not responded to requests for comments.  

Commencing as an extradition and death warrant attorney for Florida Governor John Edward Bush, Judge Wendy Leigh Williams Berger has cultivated a tough-on-crime image.  She first served as a Florida trial and appellate court judge, and was then named to the U.S. District Court by President Donald Joh. Trump. 

Trinity Episcopal has a sadistidc history of racism, as documented by the vestry's vicious attack upon the Fr. Rev. Charles Seymour, Jr., who was father of my friend Nell Seymour Toensmann, former St. Johns County Democratic Executive Committee Chair, first reported by The New York Times in 1964.

Do pray and Do tell. 

Two suggestions, dear readers:

  • Pray for Trinity Episcopal's parishioners to obtain a copy of the tape recording of the Code Enforcement hearing and have a heart-to-heart talk with their Bishop and their insouciant Rector.
  • Tell the City of St. Augustine to start providing life streaming video and archive access to Code Enforcement Board meetings.  It's our town and our time, and there's no reason not to make live streaming video available, as with other boards!

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