WILMINGTON — The City of Wilmington is again considering letting a major developer get away with cutting down trees without a permit, without paying a fine — while a Wilmington resident who cut down six trees to protect his property without a permit that he did not know he needed, is being fined thousands of dollars and told to plant 25 trees as restitution.
Further, documents relating to the issue that should be available for public viewing per the City of Wilmington’s own requirements were inexplicably unavailable when Port City Daily went to city hall to retrieve them; information on those documents has been requested but not received.
The proposed agreement
According to a draft settlement agreement from the City of Wilmington, “On or about April 4, 2018, the City, by and through its zoning officer, issued a Notice of Zoning Violation and Civil Citation in the amount of $20,000 for the removal of approximately 50 oak trees without a permit as require [sic] by the Wilmington Code of Ordinances.”
The property in question is located at Mayfaire Club Drive, better known as The Village at Mayfaire Condominiums.
The owners of the property in question razed the oak trees and replaced them with palm trees — an unacceptable replacement tree according to the City’s own documents.
The settlement agreement also states that the parties desire resolving the issue without unnecessary litigation, but an appeal to the city’s fine and requirement to replace the trees has been submitted to the city’s Board of Adjustment (BOA).
It has been on the BOA’s agenda packet several times since summer and has been continued at the request of the applicant.
“All supplementary materials related to agenda items are available for public inspection and review at the Planning Division located on the third floor at 305 Chestnut Street between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday,” according to city documents.
On Nov. 7, the BOA will meet once again to hear the appeal, provided the developer does not again request a continuance.
According to the city’s own meeting agenda, supplemental information regarding the agenda items are to be made available to the public — but when Port City Daily stopped by the Planning Division, staff told reporters that the information was not yet prepared, despite being on agenda’s for several months.
“All supplementary materials related to agenda items are available for public inspection and review at the Planning Division located on the third floor at 305 Chestnut Street between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday,” according to the BOA agenda.
Requests for the information in emails to the City of Wilmington’s spokeswoman Malissa Talbert have also been unanswered at the time of publication, although Talbert did respond to say she was working on getting the information.
A pattern of unenforced punishments for developers
This would not be the first time the city agrees to a deal with a developer who ran afoul of city code.
The developer behind the Wrightsville Avenue Galleria project was fined $13,000 for chopping down oak trees without a permit. Shortly afterward, city council approved a settlement with the developer — but three years later, the city has not seen a dime, and new trees have not been planted.
In fact, the attorney representing the Village at Mayfaire, Joe Betts requested all notes, records, and actions of council related to the 2015 settlement between the City of Wilmington and the developer of the Galleria project. Betts was a Wilmington assistant city attorney from 2012 to 2016.
Another instance of the city threatening a developer for not its end of a bargain can be found at the city’s Riverwalk where the issue of public bathrooms has still not seen resolution.
The City of Wilmington entered into an agreement with Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel (NRMH) to allow the BlackFinn Ameripub and Vida Cantina restaurants to open in time for the Wells Fargo Championship. In exchange for modifying the development agreement with the city, NRMH agreed to construct temporary public bathrooms within 90 days, and permanent public bathrooms within three years, according to previous reporting from Port City Daily.
The bathrooms have yet to be built.
When it comes to private citizens and code enforcement, the city appears much more willing to assess fines as punishment; one Wilmington landowner recently experienced this after he was fined thousands of dollars and told to plant 25 new trees because he removed six trees from his property to protect a building in case they fell.
The property owner said he was unaware that he was required to have a $25 permit that would have allowed him to cut the trees without issue and would have happily paid the cost. He has already begun paying the more than $3,000 in fines on a payment plan.
The Mayfaire Village deal
According to the proposed settlement agreement, the owner of the property would be required to plant one approved street tree in between each palm tree lining Mayfaire Club Drive.
These trees can be chosen from a list of several approved trees including crepe myrtles and black gum trees. All of the plantings would have to be complete by April 1, 2019 and any trees that are dead or dying within one year of planting would be replaced by the owner.
An additional six canopy trees, either bald cypress, live oak, black gum, or swamp white oak would be required to be planted elsewhere on the property as well.
If agreed upon, the city is ready to forgive the $20,000 fine and the owner would dismiss the appeal of the zoning officers determination.
It is not yet known if the developer will accept the deal or continue with its appeal to the Board of Adjustment.
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