WILMINGTON — City Council recently approved a settlement with a Mayfaire development, dropping a $20,000 fine issued after 50 oaks were illegally cut down; the deal was approved in closed session and wasn’t announced to the public — it also was also omitted from the city’s response to questions about the issue.
The fines date back to April 4, when the city’s zoning office issued a $20,000 fine to the Village at Mayfaire Condominium Association (COA), after the COA cut down 50 oak trees. The COA appealed to the city’s Board of Adjustment, kicking off several months of negotiations between the city and the COA.
Last week, on Monday, Dec. 10, city officials told Port City Daily that staff was hard at work with ongoing negotiations between the city and the COA.
But according to city email records, a settlement deal had already been signed, a week prior, on Monday, Dec. 3. It is unclear why staff did not mention the settlement when asked about the status of the fine.
The settlement was approved during city council’s agenda review meeting. These are traditionally held the day before regular meetings, and allow council members to work through issues – particularly for the consent agenda, which is voted on without discussion during regular meetings.
The meetings are public but sparsely attended, in part because they are usually held on Monday mornings at 8:30 a.m.
While the agenda briefing meetings are public, the closed-session which City Council entered on Dec. 3 was not, nor are minutes of the session made public.
The city did provide a copy of the settlement (you can read it in full, below).
The settlement does shed some light on why the trees were cut down in the first place.
According to the settlement, “exigent circumstances existed the required removal of the trees without a permit so as to prevent diseases trees from becoming a danger to the public.”
It’s not clear how long the trees had been diseased, but the city ‘s arborist did acknowledge that “the removed oaks were not appropriate oaks for the sites where they were planted on the Property, leading to the trees’ decline in health.”
The settlement requires the COA to plant new trees between the palms that were used to replace the oaks; the COA can choose between Japanese Zelkova, Chinese pistache, crepe myrtle, trident maple, emerald sunshine elm, or black gum. The COA is also required to plant six “canopy trees,” which can be bald cypress, live oak, black gum, or swamp white oak.
If the trees are planted by April 1, 2019, the city will waive the $20,000 fine; if not, the $20,000 fine will be upheld in addition to a fine of $100 per unplanted tree, per year.
Some familiar names
The settlement was negotiated over the summer by the COA’s attorney, Joe Betts, himself a former city attorney from 2012 to 2016. During that time, the city fined Jeffrey Kenter’s State Street Companies $13,000 after the Charlotte-based development company illegally chopped down oak trees on the site of the planed Galleria development on Wrightsville Avenue. Betts filed a public records request for city documents related to the issue over the summer.
As with the Mayfaire COA fine, city council went into closed session during an agenda briefing to approve a deal with the Galleria project, waiving the fine provided new trees were planted. Three years later, Kentner and State Street have yet to do so, nor have they paid a fine.
The city, which has gone to what City Manager Sterling Cheatham acknowledged as “unusual” lengths to support the Galleria project, has been tight-lipped about the Galleria issue.
The two settlements are similar in another way — both properties were developed by State Street Companies. Kentner was also the original landowner, through The Village at Mayfaire, an LLC that has since been dissolved.
Betts has not returned several calls and emails. Kentner initially agreed to an interview regarding several development issues between his company and the city, but later rescheduled to an indefinite later date.
Wilmington City Council did not respond to emails sent on Thursday; this article will be updated with any comment received, if and when that occurs.
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