TAMPA – The rattlesnakes were the tip-off.
Just as the redevelopment of a prime tract on S West Shore Boulevard finally got underway this fall, the clearing of trees and dense overgrowth sent snakes slithering across the busy street and into nearby yards. City inspectors sent out to investigate quickly issued a "stop work'' order and now the Isles at Old Tampa Bay is on hold.
"We have city approved plans for our scope of work, but inadvertently did not secure the required permits to implement the approved plans,'' said a statement from the developers, Tampa-based DeBartolo Development and Avanti Properties Group of Winter Park. "We are currently working with the city to acquire permits needed to continue work on the property.''
But the unpermitted work has left a desolate landscape where irreplaceable grand oaks stood until a few weeks ago.
"It’s really just a tragedy and it’s going to affect the entire region,'' said Chelsea Johnson of the Tampa advocacy group Tree Something Say Something. “The way it was just clear cut was so irresponsible to neighbors and the city, there are coyotes and rattlesnakes running through South Tampa and people’s homes.”
The 162-acre site, Johnson added, now looks like a field where "they are going to grow tobacco or corn … You and I won’t ever see those trees replenished, they were absolutely priceless.''
City officials already have issued numerous code violations. “Additional review and investigation regarding illegal removal of trees will be pursued,'' officials said in a statement, ‘”and citations will be issued and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Code.'’
The Isles at Old Tampa Bay is planned for approximately 350 residential units, including 130 luxury townhomes and 67 large "estate lots.'' Of those, 38 are bayfront and all 67 have water views due to a network of existing canals.
The developers had hoped to begin sales early next year, with construction starting around summer.
The property is just a mile north of Gandy Boulevard and had been the site of the Georgetown Apartments, owned by a Virginia land developer and philanthropist. After his death, the site was sold in 2005 — the height of the last real estate boom — for $125 million. The Chicago buyers planned to put up houses, condos and townhomes.
As the market crashed, the lender took back the property in a foreclosure sale and sold it to DeBartolo and Avanti in 2009 for $30.5 million. Three years later, they put it on the market, touting the “incomparable” development potential for a tract approved for 1,235 residential units and a 189-slip marina.
Even as housing demand and construction exploded elsewhere in South Tampa, nothing happened with the Isles of Old Tampa Bay except the erection of a few signs and modification of the $30 million mortgage.
Then, in September, city officials got an email complaining about the overgrowth and construction debris on the fenced-off site, which is passed by thousands of cars a day. On Oct. 2, a DeBartolo-affiliated company filed a notice of commencement for "on-site clearing and grubbing and installation of off-site improvements.''
Soon afterwards, the city’s code enforcement department received an email about the missing trees and "the rattlesnakes all over West Shore,'' said Ashley Bauman, the city’s marketing and communications director. Some of the snakes slithered right up to the doors of nearby homeowners.
A stop-work order was posted, meaning no further activity of any kind can take place until the unpermitted conditions are addressed. Among the violations cited are those involving wetlands protection and buffer, obstruction of streets, sidewalks and alleys and failure to obtain permits for site clearing and removal of grand oaks and other protected trees.
The city did not give a dollar figure but said the current penalty is an amount equal to three times the cost of the required site permit plus mitigation for tree replacement. As the investigation continues, additional fines, mitigation and enforcement are expected.
"The city remains committed to ensuring strict code compliance and will enforce all permit requirements at this site moving forward, as well as fully impose all fines and penalties,'' its statement said.
In their own statement, DeBartolo and Avanti said their goal was to be "good neighbors'' to the community and "respectful of the natural resources special to Tampa.''
The city has long been known for its lush canopy of trees, prompting outrage and a new tree ordinance as developers began cutting down magnificent old trees in the rush to build as the market rebounded from the 2008 crash. Last year, the city fined one property owner a record $840,000 for hacking down 28 trees at a South Tampa mobile home park.
Johnson of Tree Something Say Something said she found it disturbing that a Tampa developer like DeBartolo — known for its support of many local causes — would “thumb its nose at city rules” and be involved in such a wholesale destruction of trees.
"We saw it at the Gandy trailer park, we see it all over South Tampa — developers don’t get permits and they just apologize when the trees are gone,'' she said.