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County sues over mangrove destruction

It's taken almost four years, but the County Commission agreed earlier this month to sue two Seminole homeowners accused of cutting down hundreds of mangroves and dumping dirt into the Long Bayou without a permit.

Before the lawsuit was filed, county officials say Kirit S. Desai and his wife, Pratibha K. Desai, once again violated county rules by dumping fill into the wetlands next to their home without a permit.

"We have been out and documented what we believe to be additional violations," said Jewel Cole, the assistant county attorney in charge of the case. "I did add it to the lawsuit."

Also named in the lawsuit is the Long Bayou Estates Homeowners Association, which owns some of the land where the mangroves were located and the filling took place. Long Bayou Estates is an upscale subdivision off Park Boulevard in Seminole.

It took the county almost four years to file the lawsuit because officials were trying to work things out with the homeowners, Cole said. Two other homeowners settled with the county before the suit was filed, but the Desais refused, and the time for filing the case was running out, she said.

In a May 2003 news story, Mr. Desai said he did not know of the rules against destroying mangroves or of the necessity of having a permit just to trim the trees, but Friday, his wife said they did not know the mangroves were there.

The Desais and their neighbors were worried about the snakes and alligators that were lurking in the Brazilian peppers, so they paid to have them taken down, she said. "We didn't realize there were any mangroves at all," Mrs. Desai said. "There was no intention of cutting the mangroves."

Mrs. Desai also denied dumping dirt, saying they were landscaping the area. She said they have tried to settle with the county, but Cole has not returned her husband's calls.

She said they want to replace the mangroves but still keep the area clear enough that there will be no danger of snakes or alligators threatening her young children.

She said her husband plans to talk with Cole later this week to discuss a possible settlement.

Neither David Weiss nor Grant Powell, the officers of the Long Bayou Estates Homeowners Association, could be reached for comment.

If Pinellas County wins the suit, the defendants could be subject to civil fines of up to $10,000 for destroying the mangroves. Other possible fines include up to $5,000 for the first filling violation and up to $10,000 for the most recent violation. Cole said the fines are different because the law changed in 2006 to increase the penalty for filling wetlands without a permit.

The defendants also could be forced to pay to restore the area to its previous condition.

The Desais could also face criminal penalties should the state Department of Environmental Protection or the state attorney wish to file charges, Cole said.