TAMPA — Tree advocates howled last month when loggers chainsawed more than two dozen trees at a dilapidated trailer park in South Tampa. There was little else they could do. A new state law bars local governments from regulating tree removal.
But Tampa officials had other ideas. On Monday, the city served notice it was seeking $420,000 in fines from the owner, Life O’Reilly MHP, LLC, and an equal amount from Miller & Sons, LLC, the company whose arborists signed off on the tree clearing at 3011 W. Gandy Blvd.
City Attorney Gina Grimes said she believes the fine is the largest in the city’s history for tree cutting.
“The city of Tampa has one of the largest tree canopies in the world and arborists and developers should not take that for granted,” Mayor Jane Castor said in a statement. “We are closely monitoring this egregious violation and will fine those violating our policies aggressively moving forward.''
Grimes said the property is zoned commercial-general, not residential. The state law that went into effect in July applies only to residential properties, she said.
The city says the clear-cutting of 27 trees, which left another irreparably damaged, was meant to make the property more desirable for commerce, not homes.
“It is our position that in this instance the property-owner and arborist exploited the statutory preemption for their own private gain to clear-cut the site for commercial re-development, and the city will seek the maximum penalty permitted under the law,” she wrote in an email Tuesday.
Jake Cremer, a Tampa attorney representing Gulfport-based Life O’Reilly, took issue with the city’s interpretation of the law. He said the tree-cutting was perfectly legal.
“People reside on the property today, and have been residing there for over 40 years, as allowed by the city code,” Cremer wrote in an email.
A special magistrate will decide the matter at a City Hall hearing on Oct. 25, including the city’s request for the maximum $15,000 fine for each tree, which brought the total for the two violations to $840,000. Once a tree is cut down, the harm is irreversible and irreparable, Grimes said.
The loser can appeal in Hillsborough Circuit Court.
Tree advocates hailed the city action, which offered some hope in what had been a dreary summer.
For the past several years, advocates battled builders who sought to revise the city’s 1972 tree ordinance to make it easier to cut down trees. The two sides reached a compromise in April allowing for greater flexibility in building houses closer to lot lines in order to save more trees.
That city ordinance, though, was essentially snuffed out weeks later by the Legislature when it approved a Republican initiative to allow private residential property owners to remove dangerous trees as long as a certified arborist approved.
That’s what Miller & Sons arborist Jonathan Lee did this summer. Lee, who was named in the notice of violation sent to his company, didn’t return a call requesting comment this week.
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Residents at the Gandy Boulevard site interviewed by the Times in August said large limbs from the grove of Live and Laurel Oaks had fallen dangerously near some of the beat-up trailers. And workers showed a reporter cut-up trees with signs of rot. The city, though, isn’t challenging the tree’s condition; only that they were cut down illegally because of the property’s zoning.
Tampa is taking an unauthorized action that contradicts state law, Cremer said.
“If the City of Tampa has a problem with a state statute, its remedy is to complain to the state, not to threaten hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against the property owner for following the law of the land,” Cremer wrote.
Henry G. Williams of Gulport is listed on the state’s Division of Corporations website as the registered agent and manager of the mobile home park. The limited liability corporation shares an address with a waterfront Gulfport home owned by Williams, who didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment this week.
Cremer said Williams is the manager for the owner, which he identified as the limited liability corporation.
Chelsea Johnson is a neighborhood activist who founded the group Tree Something, Say Something, which forged the compromise with local builders. When the trees were cut in August, she urged city leaders to respond.
This week’s news cheered her.
“While nothing can bring back those trees, I feel the city’s response is appropriate and affirms its decades-long commitment to protecting our urban canopy,” Johnson said in a text.