TARPON SPRINGS — Katherine Zaronias says it started last fall shortly after the death of her husband.
A man showed up at the 63-year-old Tarpon Springs woman's door saying she had a diseased oak tree that was going to fall on her house.
Terrified of the potential destruction, she paid him $200 to cut it down.
Shortly afterward, another man came to her door and charged her $100 to remove the debris from the tree.
But then came the biggest shocker: a $1,540 fine from the city for removing the tree without a permit.
"It had never occurred to me that I was breaking the law," Zaronias said this week in a written plea to the City Commission. "I have never broken the law in my life and do not plan to begin breaking the law at the ripe age of 63."
Zaronias, who speaks little English and still carries the thick accent of her Greek heritage, asked the city for help at Tuesday's meeting. She wanted to know if she could simply replace the tree.
"I didn't know," Zaronias, dressed in all black and accompanied to the commission meeting by her brother-in-law, Costas Sissois, said of the city's ordinance that requires a $25 city permit to remove a tree.
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On Sept. 29, John Zaronias, her husband of 43 years, died suddenly. The day after she "laid John to rest," a water main broke in the yard at her 426 Treasure Drive home. That cost the woman who works as a cook at the local hospital $800 to fix.
A few days later, a young man knocked on her door. He told Zaronias that the oak tree in her yard with an 18-inch diameter trunk was diseased.
"I looked up, saw the tree, I was grieving, I didn't know," Zaronias, said in her broken English after Tuesday's meeting.
The young man cut the tree. He didn't leave a receipt, but did leave the tree trunk and limbs all over the yard. Another man offered to clean up the mess for $100. Zaronias paid him to do so.
On Nov. 14, the city of Tarpon Springs informed her that she needed a $25 city permit to cut down the tree. And because code enforcement officials found evidence that the tree was not diseased, she would have to pay $1,540.
That's because the permit fee was quadrupled to $100 because it would be obtained after the fact. And the price to replace a tree of that size, $360, also was quadrupled to $1,440.
Zaronias paid the $100 after-the-fact permit fee on Jan. 16 but not the remaining $1,440 tree replacement fee. On Feb. 12, the code enforcement board found her in violation of the tree ordinance and ordered her to correct the violation by June 1 or face a $50 a day fine.
At Tuesday's meeting, Zaronias asked the City Commission if she could pay $360 — the cost of a new tree — to settle the matter.
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There was some concern by the commission Tuesday about the lack of awareness of the tree ordinance. A $25 city permit is needed before a tree on one's property can be cut. The ordinance was enacted in July 2006 to prevent developers from clear cutting parcels.
City Attorney James Yacavone III said there are "several instances" where a resident "claimed" not to know about the ordinance after being cited for an unpermitted tree removal. Since 2007, 31 after-the-fact permits have been granted.
"I'm not comfortable with this one at all," Mayor Beverley Billiris said. "I just can't do it (impose the fee). There are so many residents out there who do not know what the policies are."
Commissioner Chris Alahouzos said the city has to do a better job of getting the word out.
But Commissioner Robin Saenger said there still must be some adherence to the city's ordinance.
"I agree that we (should) better inform our residents," Saenger said. "I am very sympathetic to this individual, however, I don't want a whole slew of these. … I do feel it is incumbent upon the individual to bear some of the responsibility for it."
The commission voted 3-2 to charge Zaronias a $500 fee and she must replace the oak tree.
"I'll pay it," Zaronias said, her face still showing her worry. "But I didn't know."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.