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County investigates mangrove clearing

About 8,250 square feet of the protected trees were cut. "It looks like total removal," one official said.

In what county officials call a blatant violation of environmental rules, someone has clear-cut a sizable swath of protected mangroves on S Bayshore Boulevard.

"We've seen cutting, but I don't know if it's been anything this severe," said Bob Mortoro, administrator of the county's environmental enforcement division. "It looks like total removal."

About 8,250 square feet of mangroves were cut to the stumps on private waterfront property at 951 and 953 S Bayshore Blvd. Officials think the trees were cut late last week but have not determined who did it. Violation notices were sent Thursday to the two homeowners urging them to contact the County Department of Environmental Management.

"The property owner is ultimately responsible," Mortoro said.

Bruce and Jeanne Murphy of Clearwater are building a home at 951 S Bayshore. Mrs. Murphy told a reporter she doesn't know what happened to the mangroves on her property. She said she noticed they were cut over the weekend.

"I'm as upset as everyone else," Mrs. Murphy said. "I didn't tell anybody to cut the mangroves to the quick. I didn't tell anyone to trim them."

Helen Gleason, who owns the home at 953 S Bayshore Blvd., did not return phone calls left at her workplace.

County officials say no one had a permit to cut mangroves at that location. Most alterations to mangroves require a permit, and county officials urge anyone who wants to trim them to call the Department of Environmental Management first because the rules vary greatly depending on the type, height and location of the trees.

Mortoro said the county never would have issued a permit for "total removal of mangroves down there."

"They would not have had a permit to trim that severely," Mortoro said.

Mangroves are considered a protected plant under Florida law because of the important role they play in the food chain and as a habitat for marine life.

Red, white and black mangroves grow along Bayshore Boulevard, said Robert Musser, an environmental scientist with Tampa Baywatch, a non-profit environmental group. He said if the mangroves' roots were not badly damaged, they could grow back.

The mangrove stand that was cut down had been fairly dense, Mortoro said. A few of the trees were left standing, and those were 12 to 15 feet high. Inspectors were still trying to assess the damage, he said.

The penalty for cutting the mangroves will be determined largely by the degree of damage. Penalties will range from having to restore the mangroves, which can be very costly, to paying $157 to $500 per mangrove stem cut, Mortoro said. In some cases, Mortoro said, his office has penalized both the homeowner and the tree trimmer.

"There would be (no explanation) that would be acceptable," Mortoro said of the mangrove cutting. "We'd never allow that kind of trimming. It's a pretty substantial violation."

In 1996, a Largo-area homeowner who chopped down mangroves near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport had to pay more than $10,000 in fines and restore the plants at a cost of about $35,000.

In the meantime, Musser said, the loss of the mangroves will disturb the aquatic animals that live there.

"That area is a micro-ecosystem," he said. "This will destroy the ecosystem as far as the habitat and the critters."

Musser said there have been problems in the past on Bayshore Boulevard, a waterfront neighborhood lined with many large, expensive homes. Some of the waterfront property is owned by the city as part of the Linear Greenway, and some is privately owned.

In 1995, when the Legislature eased mangrove regulations for a short time, a number of people on Bayshore south of the Safety Harbor Spa "really went to town" on the mangroves, Musser said.

In 1996, the city paid to cut back mangroves on S Bayshore after residents complained the trees _ as high as 20 feet in some places _ blocked their view of Tampa Bay.