TAMPA — The owner of a parcel of land along exclusive Bayshore Boulevard will go before the city of Tampa's tree magistrate March 14 to face a citation for cutting down two grand oak trees without a permit.
One angry neighbor accused the owner of using the threat of Hurricane Irma to do the job — even though the house that would have been protected from storm-struck limbs was razed soon afterward anyway.
The case comes as the Tampa City Council is moving ahead with changes that would streamline the tree removal process — the subject of a divisive debate before the council Thursday pitting some Bayshore residents against builders.
"It sounded like a bomb had gone off," said Alexa Jessee, who lives near the property at 6216 Bayshore Blvd where the trees once stood.
Jessee went to investigate the sound Sept. 9 and found a landscaping team cutting down the two trees and five smaller ones. She asked if they had a permit and they told her they did, adding that they were protecting the house from the coming storm, she said.
But one of the tree limbs already had fallen into the house and none of the workers seemed concerned, Jessee said.
"It truly was gut-wrenching. They had no regard for those beautiful trees."
The brunt of the storm hit overnight on Sept. 10. When Jessee returned to her home, after evacuating to Brandon, she found no storm damage in the area. She filed a complaint as soon as city hall reopened Sep. 12.
The city investigated and found Andreas Dettlaff of Tampa had violated an ordinance requiring a permit to remove any grand tree, defined as a tree more than 34 inches in trunk diameter.
Grand oak regulations adopted by Hillsborough County describe their value: "When a tree reaches grand oak status, it's one of the largest and oldest specimens of its kind in our area, and it has withstood decades of development, deforestation, windstorms and hurricanes."
The city issued Dettlaff a cease and desist order but says he failed to follow it. All trees on the property, as well as the house, have been removed. Dettlaff purchased the property in July for $1.5 million, according to the Hillsborugh County Property Appraiser's Office.
Reached by phone, Dettlaff told the Tampa Bay Times, "I'm not quite sure what's really going on until I meet with the city. I really can't comment until I have more information."
It took two months, until Nov. 2, for the city's code enforcement department to issue Dettlaff a citation because it was overwhelmed by the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Meantime, Dettlaff paid an after-the-fact, triple permit fee of $1,850 for doing the work without authorization.
Still, "paying a fee does not clear him of the violation," said Thomas Snelling, the city's director of planning and development.
Dettlaff was given until Nov. 23 to either replace the grand oaks or donate to the city's tree trust fund. He did neither, the city says, and now faces the March 14 hearing.
The magistrate could fine Dettlaff or require him to comply with the original order. The magistrate also could dismiss the case entirely, but Snelling said that's unlikely.
"I think Tampa prides itself on its tree canopy," Jessee said, "and it sets us apart from these other cookie-cutter cities where they knock down hundred-year-old trees and just plant little oaks.
"Somebody's got to speak for the trees."
Contact Libby Baldwin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @LibBaldwin.