SAFETY HARBOR — Alligator Lake is a magnet for nesting birds — snowy egrets, wood storks and roseate spoonbills. Two islands in the lake were created to be bird habitats, and wading birds can be seen all around the lake.
Now the owners of a lakeside mansion have bulldozed a slew of trees along the shoreline in order to build another house. Some neighbors are upset, saying the plants served as a bird rookery. The state is investigating.
"It's shocking, utterly shocking," said Rebekah Apple, who lives near the site on the east side of the lake along S Bayshore Boulevard.
"I was away for business. When I came home, all the plants and trees were gone. There were birds standing on dead branches. Now there are egrets standing in front of my door just wandering around, like 'Where are we supposed to go?' "
She and others alerted the Audubon Society as well as local and state officials.
The owner of the mansion is Clearwater developer Gregory Politis, one of the founders of the Homeowners Choice property insurance company. He and his wife have deeded part of their lakefront property to their son, Peter Politis, so he can build a house and a dock there.
Peter Politis has a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to remove Brazilian pepper trees from the property and fill in a half-acre of marshland, according to the DEP. To do so, he is required to buy credits from a wetlands mitigation bank.
"I have all the necessary permits. I'm not doing anything wrong," Peter Politis said. "Every agency is fully aware of what's going on. Everything is in the open."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating. The DEP and Pinellas County authorities are also reviewing the case.
"They have a dredge-and-fill permit," said wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse. "The only question we have is whether there were any nests of protected bird species in the area where the dredge and fill was taking place. We don't know yet."
The DEP is following up on complaints, said agency spokeswoman Ana Gibbs.
"The Department of Environmental Protection is specifically looking to ensure the activities on site are in compliance with the permit issued by the department," she said.
The 20-page permit says nothing about birds. In his application for the permit, Politis proposed to remove Brazilian pepper trees, a nuisance plant, to help offset the impact of filling in wetlands.
Audubon officials are looking into the situation as well.
"We had no idea that any clearing was being planned or permitted, because if we had, we would have spoken to it," said Audubon Florida regional coordinator Ann Paul.
Wood storks have nested at Alligator Lake for more than 20 years, Paul said.
"The lake has two islands in it. One of them is a major nesting colony. It's one of the more important wading bird colonies in Pinellas County," she said. "Some of the species nested in the areas that were cleared. We had documented nesting in that area in the past."
Audubon officials, however, didn't see any birds nesting in that specific area when they checked during nesting season last spring.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151.